And now Maxie was happy. Nose first, paws held in close, he became a streamlined streak of fur, and he overtook them all. Past Nicko, who grabbed at his tail but then let go. Past Jenna, who screamed in his ear. Past Boy 412, who was curled into a tight ball. And then past his master, Silas. Maxie felt uncomfortable going past Silas, because Silas was Top Dog and Maxie was Not Allowed in Front. But the wolfhound had no choice—he sailed by Silas in a shower of cold stew and carrot peelings and carried on down.
The rubbish chute snaked around the Wizard Tower like a giant helter-skelter buried deep inside the thick walls. It dropped steeply between each floor, taking with it not only Maxie, Silas, Boy 412, Jenna, Nicko and Marcia but also the remains of all the Wizards’ lunches, which had been tipped into the chute that afternoon. The Wizard Tower was twenty-one stories high. The top two floors belonged to the ExtraOrdinary Wizard, and on each floor below that there were two Wizard apartments. That’s a lot of lunches. It was wolfhound heaven, and Maxie ate enough scraps on his way down the Wizard Tower to keep him going for the rest of the day.
Eventually, after what felt like hours but was in fact only two minutes and fifteen seconds, Jenna felt the almost vertical drop level out, and her pace slowed to something that was bearable. She did not know it, but she now had left the Wizard Tower and was traveling below the ground, out from the foot of the Tower and toward the basements of the Courts of the Custodians. It was still pitch-black and freezing cold in the chute, and Jenna felt very alone. She strained her ears to hear any sounds that the others might be making, but everyone knew how important it was to keep quiet and no one dared to call out. Jenna thought that she could detect the swish of Marcia’s cloak behind her, but since Maxie had hurtled past her she had had no sign that there was anyone else with her at all. The thought of being alone in the dark forever began to take hold of her, and another tide of panic started to rise. But just as Jenna thought she might scream, a chink of light shone down from a distant kitchen far above, and she caught a glimpse of Boy 412 huddled into a ball not far in front of her. Jenna’s spirits lifted at the sight of him, and she found herself feeling sorry for the thin, cold sentry boy in his pajamas.
Boy 412 was in no state to feel sorry for anyone, least of all himself. When the mad girl with the gold circle on her head had pushed him into the abyss he had instinctively curled himself up into a ball and had spent the entire descent down the Wizard Tower rattling from side to side of the chute like a marble in a drainpipe. Boy 412 felt bruised and battered but no more terrified than he had been since he awoke to find himself in the company of two Wizards, a Wizard boy and a Wizard ghost. As he too slowed down when the chute leveled out, Boy 412’s brain began to work again. The few thoughts that he managed to put together came to the conclusion that this must be a Test. The Young Army was full of Tests. Terrifying Surprise Tests always sprung on you in the middle of the night, just as you had fallen asleep and made your cold narrow bed as warm and comfortable as was possible. But this was a Big Test. This must be one of those Do-or-Die Tests. Boy 412 gritted his teeth; he wasn’t sure, but right now it felt horribly like this was the Die part of the test. Whatever it was, there wasn’t much he could Do. So Boy 412 closed his eyes tightly and kept rolling along.
The chute took them ever downward. It turned left and traveled underneath the Custodian Council Chambers, bore right to take in the Army Offices and then straight on where it burrowed through the thick walls of the underground kitchens that served the Palace. This was where things became particularly messy. The Kitchen Maids were still busy clearing up after the Supreme Custodian’s midday banquet, and the hatches in the kitchen, which were not far above the travelers in the rubbish chute, opened with alarming frequency and showered them with the mixed-up remains of the feast. Even Maxie, who had by now eaten as much as he possibly could, found it unpleasant, especially after a solidified rice pudding hit him square on the nose. The youngest Kitchen Maid who threw the rice pudding caught a glimpse of Maxie and had nightmares about wolves in the rubbish chute for weeks.
For Marcia it was a nightmare too. She wrapped her gravy-splattered purple silk cloak with the custard-coated fur lining tightly around her, ducked a shower of brussels sprouts and tried to rehearse the One-Second Dry Clean Spell to use the moment she got out of the chute.
At last the chute took them away from the kitchens, and things became slightly cleaner. Jenna briefly allowed herself to relax, but suddenly her breath was taken away as the chute dipped sharply down under the Castle walls toward its final destination at the riverside rubbish dump.
Silas recovered first from the sharp dip and guessed they were coming to the end of their journey. He peered into the darkness to try to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but he could make nothing out at all. Although he knew that by now the sun had set, he had hoped that with the full moon rising some light would be filtering through. And then, to his surprise, he slid to a halt against something solid. Something soft and slimy that smelled disgusting. It was Maxie.
Silas was wondering why Maxie was blocking up the rubbish chute when Boy 412, Jenna, Nicko and Marcia cannoned into him in quick succession. Silas realized that it was not just Maxie who was soft, slimy and smelled disgusting—they all did.
“Dad?” Jenna’s scared voice came out of the darkness. “Is that you, Dad?”
“Yes, poppet,” whispered Silas.
“Where are we, Dad?” asked Nicko hoarsely. He hated the rubbish chute. Up until his leap into it Nicko had had no idea that he was terrified of confined spaces; what a way to find out, he thought. Nicko had managed to fight his fear by telling himself that at least they were moving and they would soon be out. But now they had stopped. And they weren’t out.
They were stuck.
Nicko tried to sit up, but his head hit the cold slate above him. He stretched out his arms, but they both met the ice-smooth sides of the chute before he could straighten them. Nicko felt his breath coming faster and faster. He thought he might go mad if they didn’t get out of there fast.
“Why have we stopped?” hissed Marcia.
“There’s a blockage,” whispered Silas, who had felt past Maxie and come to the conclusion that they had fetched up against a huge pile of rubbish that was blocking the chute.
“Bother,” muttered Marcia.
“Dad. I want to get out, Dad,” gasped Nicko.
“Nicko?” whispered Silas. “You okay?”
“It’s the rat door!” said Marcia triumphantly. “There’s a grille to keep the rats out of the chute. It was put up after Endor found a rat in her hot pot. Open it, Silas.”
“I can’t get to it. There’s all this rubbish in the way.”
“If you’d done a Cleaning Spell like I’d asked you, there wouldn’t be, would there?”
“Marcia,” hissed Silas, “when you think you are about to die, a spot of housekeeping is not a number-one priority.”
“Dad,” said Nicko desperately.
“I’ll do it, then,” snapped Marcia. She clicked her fingers and recited something under her breath. There was a muffled clang as the rat door swung open and a swish as the rubbish obligingly hurled itself out of the chute and tumbled down onto the dump.
They were free.
The full moon, which was rising above the river, shone its clear white light into the blackness of the chute and guided the six tired and bruised travelers out to the place they had all been longing to reach.
The Riverside Amenity Rubbish Dump.
SALLY MULLIN’S CAFE
It was the usual quiet winter’s evening in Sally Mullin’s cafe. A steady buzz of conversation filled the air as a mixture of regular customers and travelers shared the large wooden tables that were gathered around a small wood-burning stove. Sally had just been around the tables sharing jokes, offering some newly baked slabs of barley cake and refilling the oil lamps that had been burning all through the dull winter afternoon. She was now back behind the bar, carefully pouring out five measures of Springo Special Ale for some newly arrived Northern Traders.
When Sally glanced over at the Traders she noticed to her surprise that the usual look of sad resignation Northern Traders were known for had been replaced by broad grins. Sally smiled. She prided herself on running a happy cafe, and if she could get five dour Traders laughing before they even had their first tankard of Springo Special, then she was doing something right.