The black rat, however, looked pleased to see them.

“Ah, good. The boys have arrived. Take him away, boys.”

“Where?” squeaked Stanley. “Where are you taking me?”

“Where…are…you…taking…me…sir,” said the black rat through gritted teeth. “To the proxy who sent this message in the first place. He wishes to know where exactly you found the recipient. And as you are no longer a Confidential, you will of course have to tell him.

“Take him to the Supreme Custodian.”

32

THE BIG THAW

The day after the Message Rat left, the Big Thaw set in. It happened first in the Marram Marshes, which were always a little warmer than anywhere else, and then it spread up the river, through the Forest and into the Castle. It was a great relief to everyone in the Castle, as they had been running out of food supplies due to the Custodian Army having looted many of the winter storerooms to provide DomDaniel with the ingredients for his frequent banquets.

The Big Thaw also came as a relief to a certain Message Rat who was shivering glumly in a rat trap underneath the floor of the Ladies’ Washroom. Stanley had been left there on account of his refusal to divulge the whereabouts of Aunt Zelda’s cottage. He was not to know that the Hunter had already successfully worked it out from what Simon Heap had told the Supreme Custodian, neither was he to know that no one had any intention of setting him free, although Stanley had been around long enough to guess as much. The Message Rat kept himself going as best he could: he ate what he could catch, mainly spiders and cockroaches; he licked the drips from the thawing drain; and he found himself thinking almost fondly about Mad Jack. Dawnie, meanwhile, had given up on him and gone to live with her sister.

The Marram Marshes were now awash with water from the rapidly thawing snow. Soon the green of the grass began to show through, and the ground became heavy and wet. The ice in the Mott and the ditches was the last to thaw, but as the Marsh Python began to feel the temperature rise, he started to move about, flicking his tail impatiently and flexing his hundreds of stiffened ribs. Everyone at the cottage was waiting with bated breath for the giant snake to break free. They were not sure how hungry he might be, or how cross. To make sure that Maxie stayed inside, Nicko had tied the wolfhound to the table leg with a thick piece of rope. He was pretty sure that fresh wolfhound would be top of the menu for the Marsh Python once he was released from his icy prison.

It happened the third afternoon of the Big Thaw. Suddenly there was a loud crack! and the ice above the Marsh Python’s powerful head shattered and sprayed up into the air. The snake reared up, and Jenna, who was the only one around, took refuge behind the chicken boat. The Marsh Python cast a glance in her direction but did not fancy chewing its way through her heavy boots, so it set off rather painfully and slowly around the Mott until it found the way out. It was then that it ran into a spot of bother: the giant snake had seized up. It was stuck in a circle. When it tried to bend in the other direction nothing seemed to work. All it could do was swim around and around the Mott. Every time it tried to turn off into the ditch that would lead it out into the marsh, its muscles refused to work.

For days the snake was forced to lie in the Mott, snapping at fish and glaring angrily at anyone who came near. Which no one did after it had flicked its long forked tongue out at Boy 412 and sent him flying. At last, one morning the early spring sun came out and warmed the snake up just enough for its stiffened muscles to relax. Creaking like a rusty gate, it swam off painfully in search of a few goats, and slowly over the next few days it almost straightened out. But not completely. To the end of its days, the Marsh Python had a tendency to swim to the right.

When the Big Thaw reached the Castle, DomDaniel took his two Magogs upriver to Bleak Creek where, in the dead of night, the three beings crossed a narrow mildewed gangplank and boarded his Darke ship, The Vengeance. There they waited some days until the high spring tide that DomDaniel needed to get his ship out of the creek floated them free.

The morning of the Big Thaw, the Supreme Custodian called a meeting of the Council of the Custodians, unaware that the day before he had forgotten to lock the door to the Ladies’ Washroom. Simon was no longer chained to a pipe, for the Supreme Custodian had begun to see him more as a companion than a hostage, and Simon sat and waited patiently for his usual midmorning visit from him. Simon liked hearing the gossip about DomDaniel’s unreasonable demands and temper tantrums and felt disappointed when the Supreme Custodian did not return at the normal time. He was not to know that the Supreme Custodian, who recently had become somewhat bored with Simon Heap’s company, was at that moment gleefully plotting what DomDaniel called “Operation Compost Heap,” which included the disposal of not only Jenna but the entire Heap family, including Simon.

After a while, more out of boredom than a desire to escape, Simon tried the door. To his amazement it opened, and he found himself staring into an empty corridor. Simon leaped back inside the washroom and slammed the door shut in a panic. What should he do? Should he escape? Did he want to escape?

He leaned against the door and thought things over. The only reason for staying was the Supreme Custodian’s vague offer of becoming DomDaniel’s Apprentice. But it had not been repeated. And Simon Heap had learned a lot from the Supreme Custodian in those six weeks he had spent in the Ladies’ Washroom. At the top of the list was not to trust anything the Supreme Custodian said. Next on the list was to look after Number One. And, from now on, Number One in Simon Heap’s life was definitely Simon Heap.

Simon opened the door again. The corridor was still deserted. He made his decision and strode out of the washroom.

Silas was wandering mournfully along Wizard Way, gazing up into the grubby windows above the shops and offices that lined the Way, wondering if Simon might be held prisoner somewhere in the dark recesses behind them. A platoon of Guards marched briskly past, and Silas shrank back into a doorway, clutching Marcia’s KeepSafe, hoping it still worked.

“Psst,” hissed Alther.

“What?” Silas jumped in surprise. He hadn’t seen much of Alther recently, as the ghost was spending most of his time with Marcia in Dungeon Number One.

“How’s Marcia today?” Silas whispered.

“She’s been better,” said Alther grimly.

“I really think we should let Zelda know,” said Silas.

“Take my advice, Silas, and don’t go near that Rat Office. It’s been taken over by DomDaniel’s rats from the Badlands. Vicious bunch of thugs. Don’t worry now, I’ll think of something,” said Alther. “There must be a way to get her out.”

Silas looked dejected. He missed Marcia more than he liked to admit.

“Cheer up, Silas,” said Alther. “I’ve got someone waiting for you in the tavern. Found him wandering around the Courthouse on my way back from Marcia. Smuggled him out through the tunnel. Better hurry up before he changes his mind and goes off again. He’s a tricky one, your Simon.”

“Simon!” Silas broke into a broad smile. “Alther, why didn’t you say? Is he all right?”

“Looks all right,” said Alther tersely.

Simon had spent nearly two weeks back with his family when, on the day before the full moon, Aunt Zelda stood on the cottage doorstep Listening to something far away.

“Boys, boys, not now,” she said to Nicko and Boy 412, who were having a duel with some spare broom handles. “I need to concentrate.”

Nicko and Boy 412 suspended their fight while Aunt Zelda became very still and her eyes took on a faraway look.

“Someone’s coming,” she said after a while. “I’m sending Boggart out.”

“At last!” said Jenna. “I wonder if it’s Dad or Marcia. Maybe Simon’s with them? Or Mum? Maybe it’s everyone!”

Maxie jumped up and bounded over to Jenna, his tail wagging madly. Sometimes Maxie seemed to understand exactly what Jenna was saying. Except when it was something like “Bath time, Maxie!” or “No more biscuits, Maxie!”

“Calm down, Maxie,” said Aunt Zelda, rubbing the wolfhound’s silky ears. “The trouble is it doesn’t feel like anyone I know.”

“Oh,” said Jenna, “but who else knows we’re here?”

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