Jenna noticed the smile and felt pleased. She was about to try another question when, in a voice that made the potion bottles rattle, Aunt Zelda yelled, “Message Rat!”
Marcia, who had taken over Aunt Zelda’s desk at the far end of the room, got up quickly and, to Jenna’s surprise, grabbed her by the hand and hauled her off the sofa.
“Hey!” protested Jenna. Marcia took no notice. She headed up the stairs, pulling Jenna along behind her. Halfway up they collided with Silas and Maxie, who were rushing down to see the Message Rat.
“That dog should not be allowed upstairs,” snapped Marcia as she tried to squeeze past Maxie without getting any dogdribble trails on her cloak.
Maxie slobbered excitedly on Marcia’s hand and rushed down after Silas, one of his large paws treading heavily on Marcia’s foot. Maxie paid very little attention to Marcia. He didn’t bother to get out of her way or take any notice of what she said because, in his wolfhound way of looking at the world, Silas was Top Dog and Marcia was right at the bottom of the pile.
Happily for Marcia, these finer points of Maxie’s inner life had passed her by, and she pushed past the wolfhound and strode upstairs, trailing Jenna in her wake, out of the way of the Message Rat.
“Wha-what did you do that for?” asked Jenna, getting her breath back as they reached the attic room.
“The Message Rat,” said Marcia, a little puffed. “We don’t know what kind of rat it is. It might not be a Chartered Confidential Rat.”
“A what rat?” asked Jenna, puzzled.
“Well,” whispered Marcia, sitting down on Aunt Zelda’s narrow bed, which was covered with an assortment of patchwork blankets that were the result of many long, solitary evenings by the fireside. She patted the space beside her, and Jenna sat down too.
“Do you know about Message Rats?” asked Marcia in a low voice.
“I think so,” said Jenna uncertainly, “but we never got one at home. Ever. I thought you had to be really important to get a Message Rat.”
“No,” said Marcia, “anyone can get one. Or send one.”
“Maybe Mum sent it,” said Jenna in a hopeful voice.
“Maybe,” said Marcia, “and maybe not. We need to know if it is a Confidential Rat before we can trust it. A Confidential Rat will always tell the truth and keep all secrets at all times. It is also extremely expensive.”
Jenna thought gloomily that in that case Sarah could never have sent the rat.
“So we’ll just have to wait and see,” said Marcia. “And meanwhile you and I will wait up here just in case it’s a spy rat come to see where the ExtraOrdinary Wizard is hiding with the Princess.”
Jenna nodded slowly. It was that word again. Princess. It still took her by surprise. She couldn’t quite believe that that was who she really was. But she sat quietly next to Marcia, gazing around the attic room.
The room felt surprisingly large and airy. It had a sloping ceiling in which was set a small window that looked out far across the snow-covered marshes. Huge sturdy beams supported the roof. Below the beams hung an assortment of what looked like large patchwork tents, until Jenna realized that they must be Aunt Zelda’s dresses. There were three beds in the room. Jenna guessed from the patchwork covers that they were sitting on Aunt Zelda’s bed, and the one tucked away low in an alcove by the stairs and covered in dog hair was likely to belong to Silas. In the far corner was a large bed built into the wall. It reminded Jenna of her own box bed at home and gave her a sharp pang of homesickness when she looked at it. She guessed that it was Marcia’s, for beside the bed was her book, The Undoing of the Darkenesse, a fine onyx pen and a pile of the best quality vellum covered in Magykal signs and symbols.
Marcia followed her gaze.
“Come on, you can try out my pen. You’ll like that. It writes in any color you ask it to—if it’s in a good mood.”
While Jenna was upstairs trying out Marcia’s pen, which was being somewhat contrary by insisting on writing every other letter in lurid green, Silas was downstairs trying to restrain an excitable Maxie, who had caught sight of the Message Rat.
“Nicko,” said Silas distractedly, having spotted his damp-looking son just coming in from the hot spring. “Hang on to Maxie and keep him away from the rat, would you?” Nicko and Maxie bounded onto the sofa, and with equal speed, Boy 412 shot off.
“Now, where’s that rat?” asked Silas.
A large brown rat was sitting outside the window, tapping on the glass. Aunt Zelda opened the window, and the rat hopped in and looked around the room with his quick, bright eyes.
“Squeeke, Rat!” said Silas in Magyk.
The rat looked at him impatiently.
The rat crossed his arms and waited. He gave Silas a withering look.
“Um…sorry. It’s been ages since I’ve had a Message Rat,” Silas excused himself. “Oh, that’s it…Speeke, Rattus Rattus.”
“Right-ho,” sighed the rat. “Got there in the end.” He drew himself up and said, “First I have to ask. Is there anyone here answering to the name of Silas Heap?” The rat stared straight at Silas.
“Yes, me,” said Silas.
“Thought so,” said the rat. “Fits the description.” He gave a small, important-sounding cough, stood up straight and clasped his front paws behind his back.
“I am come here to deliver a message to Silas Heap. The message is sent today at eight o’clock this morning from one Sarah Heap residing in the house of Galen.
Hello, Silas love. And Jenna piglet and Nicko angel.
I have sent the rat to Zelda’s in the hope that he finds you safe and well. Sally told us that the Hunter was after you, and I couldn’t sleep all night for thinking about it. That man has such a terrible reputation. I was at my wits’ end by the morning and was convinced you had all been caught (although Galen told me she knew you were safe), but dear Alther came to see us as soon as it was light and told us the wonderful news that you had escaped. He said he last saw you setting off into the Marram Marshes. He wished he could have come with you.
Silas, something has happened. Simon disappeared on our way here. We were on the riverside path that leads into Galen’s part of the Forest when I realized that he had gone. I just don’t know what can have happened to him. We didn’t see any Guards, and no one saw or heard him go. Silas, I am so afraid he has fallen into one of those traps that those awful witches set. We are going out to search for him today.
The Guards set fire to Sally’s cafe and she only just managed to escape. She is not sure how she did it, but she arrived here safely this morning and asked me to tell Marcia that she is very grateful for the KeepSafe she gave her. In fact, we all are. It was very generous of Marcia.
Silas, please send the rat back and let me know how you are.
All our love and thoughts go to you all.
Your loving Sarah
Exhausted, the rat slumped down on the windowsill.
“I could murder a cup of tea,” he said.
Silas was very agitated.
“I shall have to go back,” he said, “and look for Simon. Who knows what might have happened?”
Aunt Zelda tried to calm him down. She brought out two mugs of hot sweet tea and gave one to the rat and one to Silas. The rat downed his mug in one go while Silas sat gloomily nursing his.
“Simon’s really tough, Dad,” said Nicko. “He’ll be all right. I expect he just got lost. He’ll be back with Mum by now.”
Silas was not convinced.
Aunt Zelda decided the only sensible thing to do was to have supper. Aunt Zelda’s suppers usually took people’s minds off their problems. She was a hospitable cook who liked to have as many people around her table as she could, and although her guests always enjoyed the conversation, the food could be more of a challenge. The most frequent description was “interesting,” as in, “That bread and cabbage bake was very…interesting, Zelda. I never would have thought of that myself,” or, “Well, I must say that strawberry jam is such an…interesting sauce for sliced eel.”
Silas was put to work laying the table to take his mind off things, and the Message Rat was invited to supper.
Aunt Zelda served frog and rabbit casserole with twice-boiled turnip heads followed by cherry and parsnip delight. Boy 412 tucked into it with great enthusiasm, as it was a wonderful improvement on the Young Army food, and he even had second and third helpings, much to Aunt Zelda’s delight. No one had ever asked her for second helpings before, let alone third.