“I believe we have the information you require?” the Trader continued. His voice was slowly searching for the right words in an unfamiliar language, rising as though asking a question.
“Have you now?” replied the Hunter, the pain in his leg leaving him as, at last, the Hunt began to pick up the Trail.
Sally stared at the Northern Trader in horror. How did he know anything? Then she realized. He must have seen them from the window.
The Trader avoided Sally’s accusing stare. He looked uncomfortable, but he had obviously understood enough of the Hunter’s words to also be afraid.
“We believe those you seek have left? In the boat?” the Trader said slowly.
“The boat. Which boat?” snapped the Hunter, back in charge now.
“We do not know your boats here. A small boat, red sails? A family with a wolf.”
“A wolf. Ah, the mutt.” The Hunter moved uncomfortably close to the Trader and growled in a low voice, “Which direction? Upstream or downstream? To the mountains or to the Port? Think carefully, my friend, if you and your companions wish to keep cool tonight.”
“Downstream. To the Port,” muttered the Trader, finding the hot breath of the Hunter unpleasant.
“Right,” said the Hunter, satisfied. “I suggest you and your friends leave now while you can.”
The other four Traders silently got up and walked over to the fifth Trader, guiltily avoiding Sally’s horrified gaze. Swiftly they slipped out into the night, leaving Sally to her fate.
The Hunter gave her a little mocking bow.
“And good night to you too, Madam,” he said. “Thank you for your hospitality.” The Hunter swept out and slammed the cafe door behind him.
“Nail the door shut!” he shouted angrily. “And the windows. Don’t let her escape!”
The Hunter strode off down the gangway. “Get me a fast-pursuit bullet boat,” he ordered the Runner waiting at the end of the gangway. “At the quay. Now!”
The Hunter reached the riverbank and turned to survey Sally Mullin’s beleaguered cafe. As much as he wanted to see the first lick of the flames before he left, he did not stop. He needed to catch the Trail before it went cold. As he strode down to the quay to await the arrival of the bullet boat, the Hunter smiled a satisfied smile.
No one tried to make a fool of him and got away with it.
Behind the smiling Hunter trotted the Apprentice. He was somewhat sulky at having been left outside the cafe in the cold, but he was also very excited. He wrapped his thick cloak around him and hugged himself with anticipation. His dark eyes shone, and his pale cheeks were flushed with the chill night air. This was turning into the Big Adventure his Master had told him it would be. It was the start of his Master’s Return. And he was part of it because without him it could not happen. He was Advisor to the Hunter. He was the one who would Oversee the Hunt. The one whose Magykal powers would Save the Day. A brief tremor of doubt crossed the Apprentice’s mind at this thought, but he pushed it away. He felt so important it made him want to shout. Or jump about. Or hit someone. But he couldn’t. He had to do as his Master told him and follow the Hunter carefully and quietly. But he might just hit the Queenling when he got her—that would show her.
“Stop daydreaming and get in the boat, will you?” the Hunter snapped at him. “Get in the back, out of the way.”
The Apprentice did as he was told. He didn’t want to admit it, but the Hunter scared him. He stepped carefully into the stern of the boat and squeezed himself into the tiny space in front of the feet of the oarsmen.
The Hunter looked approvingly at the bullet boat. Long, narrow, sleek and as black as the night, it was coated with a polished lacquer that allowed it to slip through the water with the ease of a skater’s blade on ice. Powered by ten highly trained oarsmen, it could outrun anything on the water.
On the prow it carried a powerful searchlight and a sturdy tripod on which a pistol could be mounted. The Hunter stepped carefully into the prow and sat on the narrow plank behind the tripod, where he set about quickly and expertly mounting the Assassin’s silver pistol onto it. He then took a silver bullet from his pouch, looked at it closely to make sure it was the one he wanted and laid it down in a small tray beside the pistol in readiness. Finally the Hunter took five standard bullets from the boat’s bullet box and lined them up beside the silver bullet. He was ready.
“Go!” he said.
The bullet boat pulled smoothly and silently out from the quay, found the fast current in the middle of the river and disappeared into the night.
But not before the Hunter had glanced behind him and seen the sight he had been waiting for.
A sheet of flame was snaking up into the night.
Sally Mullin’s cafe was ablaze.
A few miles downriver the sailboat Muriel was running with the wind, and Nicko was in his element. He stood at the helm of the small crowded boat and guided her skillfully along the channel that wound down the middle of the river, where the water flowed swift and deep. The spring tide was ebbing fast and taking them with it, while the wind had risen enough to make the water choppy and send Muriel bouncing through the waves.
The full moon rode high in the sky and cast a bright silver light over the river, lighting their way. The river widened as it traveled ever onward toward the sea, and as the occupants of the boat gazed out they noticed that the low-lying riverbanks with their overhanging trees and occasional lonely cottage appeared increasingly distant. A silence descended as the passengers began to feel uncomfortably small in such a large expanse of water. And Marcia began to feel horribly sick.
Jenna was sitting on the wooden deck, resting against the hull and holding on to a rope for Nicko. The rope was attached to the small triangular sail at the prow that tugged and pulled with the wind, and Jenna was kept busy trying to keep hold of it. Her fingers felt stiff and numb, but she did not dare let go. Nicko got very bossy when he was in charge of a boat, Jenna thought.
The wind felt cold, and even with the thick sweater, big sheepskin jacket and itchy woolen hat that Silas had found for her in Sally’s clothes cupboard, Jenna shivered in the chill from the water.
Curled up beside Jenna lay Boy 412. Once Jenna had pulled him into the boat, Boy 412 had decided that there was nothing he could do anymore and had given up his struggle against the Wizards and the weird kids. And when Muriel had rounded Raven’s Rock and he could no longer see the Castle, Boy 412 had simply curled up into a ball beside Jenna and fallen fast asleep. Now that Muriel had reached rougher waters, his head was thumping against the mast with the movement of the boat, and Jenna gently shifted Boy 412 and placed his head on her lap. She looked down at his thin, pinched face almost hidden beneath his red felt hat and thought that Boy 412 looked a lot happier in his sleep than he did when he was awake. Then her thoughts turned to Sally.
Jenna loved Sally. She loved the way Sally never stopped talking and the way she made things happen. When Sally breezed in to see the Heaps, she brought with her all the excitement of life in the Castle, and Jenna loved it.
“I hope Sally is all right,” said Jenna quietly as she listened to the steady creaking and gentle purposeful swish of the little boat speeding through the shining black water.
“So do I, poppet,” said Silas, deep in thought.
Since the Castle had disappeared from view, Silas too now had time to think. And, after he had thought about Sarah and the boys and hoped they had reached Galen’s tree house in the Forest safely, his thoughts had also turned to Sally, and they made for uncomfortable thinking.
“She’ll be fine,” said Marcia weakly. She felt sick, and she didn’t like it.
“That’s just so typical of you, Marcia,” snapped Silas. “Now that you’re ExtraOrdinary Wizard you just take what you want from someone and don’t give them another thought. You just don’t live in the real world anymore, do you? Unlike us Ordinary Wizards. We know what it’s like to be in danger.”
“Muriel’s going well,” said Nicko brightly, trying to change the subject. He didn’t like it when Silas got upset about Ordinary Wizards. Nicko thought being an Ordinary Wizard was pretty good. He wouldn’t fancy it himself—too many books to read and not enough time to go sailing—but he reckoned it was a respectable job. And who would want to be ExtraOrdinary Wizard anyway? Stuck in that weird Tower for most of the time and never able to go anywhere without people gawking at you. There was no way he would ever want to do that.