Marcia sighed. “I imagine the platinum KeepSafe I gave her from my belt will be of some help,” she said slowly, gazing studiedly at the distant riverbank.
“You gave Sally one of your belt Charms?” asked Silas, amazed. “Your KeepSafe? Wasn’t that a bit risky? You might need it.”
“The KeepSafe is there to be used when the Need is Great. Sally is going to join Sarah and Galen. It may be of some use to them too. Now be quiet. I think I’m going to be sick.”
An uneasy silence fell.
“Muriel’s doing nicely, Nicko. You’re a good sailor,” said Silas some time later.
“Thanks, Dad,” said Nicko, smiling broadly, as he always did when a boat was sailing well. Nicko was guiding Muriel expertly through the water, balancing the pull of the tiller against the force of the wind in the sails and sending the little boat singing through the waves.
“Is that the Marram Marshes, Dad?” asked Nicko after a while, pointing to the distant riverbank on his left. He had noticed that the landscape around them was changing. Muriel was now sailing down the middle of what was a wide expanse of water, and in the distance Nicko could see a vast stretch of flat low-lying land, dusted with snow and shimmering in the moonlight.
Silas stared out across the water.
“Perhaps you should sail that way a bit, Nicko,” suggested Silas, waving his arm in the general direction where Nicko was pointing. “Then we can keep an eye open for the Deppen Ditch. That’s the one we need.”
Silas hoped he could remember the entrance to the Deppen Ditch, which was the channel that led to Keeper’s Cottage, where Aunt Zelda lived. It had been a long time since he had been to see Aunt Zelda, and the marshland all looked much the same to Silas.
Nicko had just changed course and was heading in the direction of Silas’s waving arm when a brilliant beam of light cut through the darkness behind them.
It was the bullet boat’s searchlight.
Everyone—except Boy 412, who was still asleep—stared into the darkness. As they did so the searchlight swept across the distant horizon again, lighting up the broad expanse of the river and the low-lying banks on either side. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind what it was.
“It’s the Hunter, isn’t it, Dad?” whispered Jenna.
Silas knew Jenna was right, but he said, “Well, it could be anything, poppet. Just a boat out fishing…or something,” he added lamely.
“Of course it’s the Hunter. In a fast-pursuit bullet boat, if I’m not mistaken,” snapped Marcia, who had suddenly stopped feeling sick.
Marcia didn’t realize it, but she no longer felt sick because Muriel had stopped bouncing through the water. In fact, Muriel had stopped doing anything at all, except slowly drifting nowhere in particular.
Marcia looked accusingly at Nicko. “Get a move on, Nicko. What have you slowed down for?”
“There’s nothing I can do. The wind’s dropped,” muttered Nicko, worried. He had just turned Muriel toward the Marram Marshes only to find that the wind had died. Muriel had lost all speed, and her sails were hanging limply.
“Well, we can’t just sit here,” said Marcia, anxiously watching the searchlight coming rapidly closer. “That bullet boat’s going to be here in a few minutes.”
“Can’t you rustle up some wind for us?” Silas asked Marcia, agitated. “I thought you did Element Control on the Advanced Course. Or make us invisible. Come on, Marcia. Do something.”
“I can’t just ‘rustle up some wind,’ as you put it. There’s nowhere near enough time. And you know Invisibility is a personal spell. I can’t do it for anyone else.”
The searchlight swept across the water again. Bigger, brighter, nearer. And coming toward them fast.
“We’ll have to use the paddles,” said Nicko, who, as skipper, had decided to take charge. “We can paddle over to the marsh and hide there. Come on. Quick.”
Marcia, Silas and Jenna grabbed a paddle each. Boy 412 woke up with a start as Jenna thumped his head down on the deck in her rush to pick up a paddle. He looked around him unhappily. Why was he still in the boat with all the Wizards? What did they want him for?
Jenna thrust the remaining paddle into his hand.
“Paddle!” she told him. “As fast as you can!” Jenna’s tone of voice reminded Boy 412 of his drill teacher. He put his paddle into the water and paddled as fast as he could.
Slowly, far too slowly, Muriel crept toward the safety of the Marram Marshes while the bullet boat’s searchlight swung backward and forward across the water, mercilessly seeking out its prey.
Jenna stole a look behind her and, to her horror, saw the black shape of the bullet boat. It was like a long repulsive beetle, its five pairs of thin black legs silently slicing through the water to and fro, to and fro, as the highly trained oarsmen pushed themselves and the boat to the limits, gaining fast on Muriel’s frantically paddling occupants.
Sitting in the prow was the unmistakable shape of the Hunter, tense and ready to pounce. Jenna caught the Hunter’s cold, calculating stare and suddenly she felt brave enough to talk to Marcia.
“Marcia,” said Jenna, “we’re not going to reach the marshes in time. You must do something. Now.”
Although Marcia looked surprised at being spoken to so directly, she approved. Spoken like a true Princess, she thought.
“Very well,” agreed Marcia. “I could try a Fog. I can do that in fifty-three seconds. If it’s cold and damp enough.”
Muriel’s crew was sure that there were no problems with the cold and damp bit. They just hoped they had fifty-three seconds left.
“Everyone stop paddling,” instructed Marcia. “Keep still. And quiet. Very quiet.” Muriel’s crew did as they were told, and in the silence that fell, they heard a new sound in the distance. The rhythmic splash of the bullet boat’s oars.
Marcia gingerly stood up, wishing that the floor wouldn’t move around so much. Then she leaned against the mast to steady herself, took a deep breath and threw her arms wide, her cloak flying out like a pair of purple wings.
“Murken Wake!” the ExtraOrdinary Wizard whispered as loud as she dared. “Murken Wake and Refuge Make!”
It was a beautiful spell. Jenna watched as thick white clouds gathered themselves together in the bright moonlit sky, quickly obscuring the moon and bringing down a deep chill into the night air. In the darkness all became deathly still as the first delicate tendrils of mist started rising from the black water as far as the eye could see. Faster and faster the tendrils grew, gathering together and growing into thick swathes of Fog, as the mist from the marshes rolled over the water to join them. In the very center, in the eye of the Fog, sat Muriel, becalmed and patiently waiting as the mist tumbled, swirled and thickened around her.
Soon Muriel was blanketed by a deep white thickness that struck a damp chill into Jenna’s bones. Next to her she felt Boy 412 start shivering badly. He was still chilled from his time under the snow.
“Fifty-three seconds precisely,” Marcia’s voice muttered from out of the Fog. “Not bad.”
“Shhhh,” shushed Silas.
Thick white silence fell in the little boat. Slowly Jenna lifted her hand and placed it in front of her wide-open eyes. She could see nothing but whiteness. But she could hear everything.
She could hear the synchronized splash of ten knife-sharp oars being dipped into the water and out again, in and out, in and out. She could hear the swishing whisper of the bullet boat’s prow slicing through the river, and now—now the bullet boat was so close that she could even hear the labored breathing of the oarsmen.
“Stop!” the Hunter’s voice boomed through the Fog. The splash of the oars ceased and the bullet boat drifted to a halt. Inside the Fog Muriel’s occupants held their breath, convinced that the bullet boat was very close indeed. Maybe close enough for them to reach out and touch. Or close enough even for the Hunter to leap onto Muriel’s crowded deck….
Jenna felt her heart beating fast and loud, but she made herself breathe slowly, silently, and stay completely still. She knew that although they could not be seen, they could still be heard. Nicko and Marcia were doing the same. Silas was too, with the added interest of having one hand clasped around Maxie’s long, damp muzzle to stop him from howling and the other hand slowly and calmly stroking the agitated wolfhound, who had become quite spooked by the Fog.