As he was wondering how Aunt Zelda had managed to squeeze herself through the trapdoor, Boy 412 saw the dim yellow glow of a lantern shining up through the open space in the floor. Soon he heard the heavy tread of Aunt Zelda’s sensible boots on the sandy floor of the tunnel and her laborious breathing as she struggled up the steep incline toward the wooden ladder. As Aunt Zelda started to heave herself up the ladder, Boy 412 silently closed the cupboard door and scuttled back to his seat by the fire.

It was quite a few minutes later when an out-of-breath Aunt Zelda poked her head out of the potion cupboard a little suspiciously and saw Boy 412 reading Thaumaturgy and Sortilage: Why Bother? with avid interest.

Before Aunt Zelda had time to disappear back into the cupboard, the front door burst open. Nicko appeared with Jenna closely following. They threw down their skates and held up what looked like a dead rat.

“Look what we found,” said Jenna.

Boy 412 pulled a face. He didn’t like rats. He’d had to live with too many of them to enjoy their company.

“Leave it outside,” said Aunt Zelda. “It’s bad luck to bring a dead thing across the threshold unless you’re going to eat it. And I don’t fancy eating that.”

“It’s not dead, Aunt Zelda,” said Jenna. “Look.” She held out the brown streak of fur for Aunt Zelda to inspect. Aunt Zelda poked at it warily.

“We found it outside that old shack,” said Jenna. “You know the one, not far from the Port at the end of the marsh. There’s a man there who lives with a donkey. And a lot of dead rats in cages. We looked through the window—it was horrible. And then he woke up and saw us, so me and Nicko went to run off and we saw this rat. I think he’d just escaped. So I picked him up and put him in my jacket and we ran for it. Well, skated for it. And the old man came out and yelled at us for taking his rat. But he couldn’t catch us, could he, Nicko?”

“No,” said Nicko, a man of few words.

“Anyway, I think it’s the Message Rat with a message from Dad,” said Jenna.

“Never,” said Aunt Zelda. “That Message Rat was fat.”

The rat in Jenna’s hands let out a weak squeak of protest.

“And this one,” said Aunt Zelda, poking the rat in the ribs, “is as thin as a rake. Well, I suppose you had better bring it in, whatever kind of rat it may be.”

And that is how Stanley finally reached his destination, nearly six weeks after he had been sent out from the Rat Office. Like all good Message Rats he had lived up to the Rat Office slogan: Nothing stops a Message Rat.

But Stanley was not strong enough to deliver his message. He lay feebly on a cushion in front of the fire while Jenna fed him pureed eel. The rat had never been a great fan of eel, particularly the pureed variety, but after six weeks in a cage drinking only water and eating nothing at all, even pureed eel tasted wonderful. And lying on a cushion in front of a fire instead of shivering at the bottom of a filthy cage was even more wonderful. Even if Bert did sneak in the odd peck when no one was looking.

Marcia did the Speeke, Rattus Rattus command after Jenna insisted on it, but Stanley uttered not a word as he lay weakly on his cushion.

“I’m still not convinced it’s the Message Rat,” said Marcia a few days after Stanley had arrived and the rat had still not spoken. “That Message Rat did nothing but talk, if I remember rightly. And a load of drivel most of it was too.”

Stanley gave Marcia his best frown, but it passed her by.

“It is him, Marcia,” Jenna assured her. “I’ve kept loads of rats and I’m good at recognizing them. This one is definitely the Message Rat that we had before.”

And so they all waited nervously for Stanley to recover enough to Speeke and deliver Silas’s longed-for message. It was an anxious time. The rat developed a fever and became delirious, mumbling incoherently for hours on end and almost driving Marcia to distraction. Aunt Zelda made up copious amounts of willow bark infusions that Jenna patiently fed to the rat through a small dropper. After a long and fretful week, the rat’s fever at last abated.

Late one afternoon, when Aunt Zelda was locked in the potion cupboard (she had taken to locking the door after the day Boy 412 had peeked inside) and Marcia was working out some mathematical spells at Aunt Zelda’s desk, Stanley gave a cough and sat up. Maxie barked and Bert hissed with surprise, but the Message Rat ignored them.

He had a message to deliver.

30

MESSAGE FOR MARCIA

Stanley soon had an expectant audience gathered around him. He hobbled stiffly off the cushion, stood up and took a deep breath. Then he said in a shaky voice, “First I must ask. Is there anyone here answering to the name of Marcia Overstrand?”

“You know there is,” said Marcia impatiently.

“I still have to ask, Your Honor. Part of the procedure,” said the Message Rat. He continued. “I am come here to deliver a message to Marcia Overstrand, ex–ExtraOrdinary Wizard—”

“What?” gasped Marcia. “Ex? What does that idiot rat mean, ex–ExtraOrdinary Wizard?”

“Calm down, Marcia,” said Aunt Zelda. “Wait and see what he has to say.”

Stanley carried on, “The message is sent at seven o’clock in the morning…” The rat paused to work out just how many days ago it had been sent. As a true professional, Stanley had kept a record of his time imprisoned in the cage by scratching a line for each day on one of the bars. He knew he had done thirty-nine days with Mad Jack, but he had no idea how many days he had spent delirious in front of the fire in Keeper’s Cottage, “…er…a long time ago, by proxy, from one Silas Heap residing in the Castle—”

“What’s proxy mean?” asked Nicko.

Stanley tapped his foot impatiently. He didn’t like interruptions, especially when the message was so old that he was afraid he may not remember it. He coughed impatiently.

“Message begins:

Dear Marcia,

I hope you are keeping well. I am well and am at the Castle. I would be grateful if you would meet me outside the Palace as soon as possible. There has been a development. I will be at the Palace Gate at midnight, every night, until your arrival.

Looking forward to seeing you,

With best wishes,

Silas Heap

“Message ends.”

Stanley sat back down on his cushion and breathed a sigh of relief. Job done. He may have taken the longest time a Message Rat had ever taken to deliver a message, but he’d done it. He allowed himself a small smile even though he was still on duty.

There was silence for a moment, and then Marcia exploded. “Typical, just typical! He doesn’t even make an effort to get back before the Big Freeze, then, when he finally does get around to sending a message, he doesn’t bother to even mention my KeepSafe. I give up. I should have gone myself.”

“But what about Simon?” asked Jenna anxiously. “And why hasn’t Dad sent a message to us too?”

“Doesn’t sound much like Dad anyway,” grunted Nicko.

“No,” agreed Marcia. “It was far too polite.”

“Well, I suppose it was by proxy,” said Aunt Zelda uncertainly.

“What does proxy mean?” Nicko asked again.

“It means a stand-in. Someone else gave the message to the Rat Office. Silas must have been unable to get there. Which is to be expected, I suppose. I wonder who the proxy was?”

Stanley said nothing, even though he knew perfectly well that the proxy was the Supreme Custodian. Although no longer a Confidential Rat, he was still bound by the Rat Office code. And that meant all conversations within the Rat Office were Highly Confidential. But the Message Rat felt awkward. These Wizard people had rescued him, looked after him and probably saved his life. Stanley shifted about and looked at the floor. Something was going on, he thought, and he didn’t want to be part of it. This whole message had been a complete nightmare from start to finish.

Marcia walked over to the desk and slammed her book shut with a bang.

“How dare Silas ignore something as important as my KeepSafe?” she said angrily. “Does he not know that the whole point of an Ordinary Wizard is to serve the ExtraOrdinary Wizard? I will not put up with his insubordinate attitude any longer. I intend to find him and give him a piece of my mind.”

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