“What’s that awful smell?” she muttered.
“Fish,” said Nicko, wondering if Marcia knew how to sail.
Silas jumped in with Maxie, and Muriel settled a little lower down in the water.
“I’ll push you off now,” said Sally anxiously.
She threw the rope to Nicko, who skillfully caught it and stowed it neatly in the prow of the boat.
Marcia grabbed at the tiller, the sails flapping wildly, and Muriel took an unpleasantly sharp turn to the left.
“Shall I take the tiller?” Nicko offered.
“Take the what? Oh, this handle thing here? Very well, Nicko. I don’t want to tire myself.” Marcia wrapped her cloak around her and, with as much dignity as she could muster, shuffled awkwardly around to the side of the boat.
Marcia was not happy. She had never been in a boat before, and she had no intention of ever getting in one again if she could possibly help it. There were no seats for a start. No carpet, no cushions even and no roof. Not only was there far too much water outside the boat for her liking, but there was a little too much inside too. Did this mean it was sinking? And the smell was unbelievable.
Maxie was very excited. He managed to tread on Marcia’s precious shoes and wag his tail in her face at the same time.
“Shove over, you daft dog,” said Silas, pushing Maxie up to the prow where he could put his long wolfhound nose into the wind and sniff all the water smells. Then Silas squashed himself in beside Marcia, much to her discomfort, while Jenna and Boy 412 curled up on the other side of the boat.
Nicko stood happily in the stern, holding on to the tiller, and confidently set sail for the open reaches of the river.
“Where are we going?” he asked.
Marcia was still too preoccupied with her sudden proximity to such a large amount of water to answer.
“Aunt Zelda,” said Silas, who had discussed things with Sarah after Jenna had left that morning, “we’ll go and stay with Aunt Zelda.”
The wind caught Muriel’s sails and she picked up speed, heading toward the fast current in the middle of the river. Marcia closed her eyes and felt dizzy. She wondered if the boat was meant to lean over quite so much.
“The Keeper in Marram Marshes?” Marcia asked rather feebly.
“Yes,” said Silas. “We’ll be safe there. She’s got her cottage permanently Enchanted now, after she was raided by the Quake Ooze Brownies last winter. No one will ever find it.”
“Very well,” said Marcia. “We’ll go to Aunt Zelda.”
Silas looked surprised. Marcia had actually agreed with him without an argument. But then, he smiled to himself, they were all in the same boat now.
And so the little green boat disappeared into the night, leaving Sally a distant figure on the shore, waving bravely. As she lost sight of Muriel, Sally stood on the quay and listened to the sound of the water lapping against the cold stones. Suddenly she felt quite alone. She turned and started to make her way back along the snowy riverbank, her path lit by the yellow light shining from her cafe windows a short distance away. A few customers’ faces gazed out into the night as Sally hurried back to the warmth and chatter of the cafe, but they appeared not to notice her small figure as she tramped through the snow and made her way up the gangway to the pontoon.
As Sally pushed open the cafe door and slipped into the warm hubbub, her more regular customers noticed that she was not her usual self. And they were right; unusually for Sally, she had only one thought on her mind.
How long would it be before the Hunter arrived?
It took precisely eight minutes and twenty seconds for the Hunter and his Pack to arrive at the Riverside Amenity Rubbish Dump after Sally had waved Muriel off at the quay. Sally had lived through each one of those five hundred seconds with a mounting dread in the pit of her stomach.
What had she done?
Sally had said nothing when she returned to the cafe, but something about her demeanor had caused most of her customers to quickly drink up their Springo, gulp down the last crumbs of barley cake and melt speedily into the night. The only customers Sally had left were the five Northern Traders, who were on their second measures of Springo Special and were talking softly among themselves in their mournful singsong accents. Even the Washing-up Boy had disappeared.
Sally’s mouth was dry, her hands were shaking and she fought against her overwhelming desire to run away. Calm down, girl, she told herself. Tough it out. Deny everything. The Hunter has no reason to suspect you. If you run now, he’ll know you’re involved. And the Hunter will find you. He always does. Just sit tight and keep cool.
The second hand of the big cafe clock ticked on.
Four hundred and ninety-eight seconds…Four hundred and ninety-nine seconds…Five hundred.
A powerful searchlight beam swept across the top of the rubbish dump.
Sally ran to a nearby window and stared out, her heart pounding. She could see a swarm of black figures milling around, silhouetted in the beam of the searchlight. The Hunter had brought his Pack, just as Marcia had warned.
Sally stared intently, trying to make out what they were doing. The Pack was gathered around the rat door, which Marcia had jammed shut with the Lockfast and Weld Spell. To Sally’s relief the Pack seemed to be in no hurry; in fact, it looked as though they were laughing among themselves. Some faint shouts drifted down to the cafe. Sally strained her ears. What she heard made her shiver.
“…Rats trapped by a rat door…”
“…Don’t go away, ha ha. We’re coming to get you…”
As Sally watched she could see the figures around the rat door becoming increasingly frantic as the door held fast against all their efforts to pull it free. Standing apart from the Pack was a lone figure watching impatiently whom Sally rightly took to be the Hunter.
Suddenly the Hunter lost patience with the efforts to free the rat door. He strode over, grabbed an axe from one of the Pack and angrily attacked the door. Loud metallic clangs echoed down to the cafe until eventually the mangled rat door was tossed to the side, and one of the Pack was sent into the chute to dig out the rubbish. A searchlight was now trained directly into the chute, and the Pack gathered around the exit. Sally could see the glinting of their pistols in the glare of the lights. With her heart in her mouth, Sally waited for them to discover that their prey had fled.
It didn’t take long.
A disheveled figure emerged from the chute and was roughly grabbed by the Hunter who, Sally could tell, was furious. He shook the man violently and threw him aside, sending him sprawling down the slope of the dump. The Hunter crouched down and peered disbelievingly into the empty rubbish chute. Abruptly, he motioned for the smallest of the Pack to go into the chute. The man chosen hung back reluctantly, but he was forced in, and two Pack Guards with pistols were left at the entrance.
The Hunter walked slowly to the edge of the rubbish dump to regain his composure after finding that his prey had eluded him. He was followed at a safe distance by the small figure of a boy.
The boy was dressed in the everyday green robes of a Wizard Apprentice, but unlike any other Apprentice, he wore around his waist a red sash with three black stars emblazoned on it. The stars of DomDaniel.
But at that moment the Hunter was unaware of DomDaniel’s Apprentice. He stood quietly, a short, solidly built man with the usual cropped Guard haircut. His face was brown and lined from all his years outdoors spent hunting and tracking down prey of the human kind. He wore the usual Hunter attire: dark green tunic and short cloak with thick brown leather boots. Around his waist was a broad leather belt from which hung a sheathed knife and a pouch.
The Hunter smiled a grim smile, his mouth a thin, determined line turned down at the edges, his pale blue eyes narrowed to a watchful slit. So it was to be a Hunt, was it? Very well, there was nothing he liked better than a Hunt. For years he had been slowly making his way up through the ranks of the Hunting Pack, and at last he had reached his goal. He was a Hunter, the very best of the Pack, and this was the moment he had been waiting for. Here he was, hunting not only the ExtraOrdinary Wizard but also the Princess, the Queenling no less. The Hunter felt excited as he anticipated a night to remember: the Sighting, the Trail, the Chase, the Close and the Kill. No problem, thought the Hunter, his smile broadening to show his small pointed teeth in the cold moonlight.