That morning, back at the cottage, no one could believe that the Apprentice had managed to squeeze out through the cat tunnel. “I’d have thought his head was too big to fit through it,” Jenna said scornfully.
Nicko went out to search the island, but he was soon back again. “The Hunter’s canoe is gone,” he said, “and that was a fast boat. He’ll be far away by now.”
“We’ve got to stop him,” said Boy 412, who knew only too well just how dangerous a boy like the Apprentice could be, “before he tells anyone where we are, which he will do as soon as he can.”
And so Jenna, Nicko and Boy 412 took Muriel Two and set off in pursuit of the Apprentice. As the pale spring sun rose over the Marram Marshes, sending long glancing shadows across the mires and bogs, the ungainly Muriel Two took them through the maze of cuts and ditches. She traveled slow and steady, far too slow for Nicko, who knew how quickly the Hunter’s canoe must have covered the same distance. Nicko kept a watchful eye out for any sign of the sleek black canoe, half expecting to see it upturned in a Brownie Quake Ooze or drifting empty along a ditch, but to his disappointment he saw nothing apart from a long black log that only momentarily raised his hopes.
They stopped for a while to eat some goat cheese and sardine sandwiches beside the Marsh Moaners’ bog. But they were left in peace as the Moaners were long gone, evaporated in the warmth of the rising sun.
It was early afternoon and a gray drizzle had set in when, at last, they paddled into the Deppen Ditch. The Marsh Python lay dozing in the mud, half covered with the sluggish water of the recently turned incoming tide. It ignored Muriel Two, much to the occupants’ relief, and lay waiting for the fresh influx of fish that the rising tide would bring. The tide was very low, and the canoe sat well below the steep banks that rose up on either side of them, so it was not until they rounded the very last bend of the Deppen Ditch that Jenna, Nicko and Boy 412 saw what was waiting for them.
A shocked silence fell in the Muriel Two canoe.
Just a short paddle away, the Vengeance lay quietly at anchor in the early afternoon drizzle, still and steady in the middle of the river’s deepwater channel. The massive black ship was a striking sight: its bow rose up like the steep side of a cliff, and with its tattered black sails furled, its two tall masts stood out like black bones against the overcast sky. An oppressive silence surrounded the ship in the gray light. No seagulls dared wheel around hoping for scraps. Small boats using the river saw the ship and hurried quietly along the shallow waters by the riverbank, more willing to risk running aground than to go near the notorious Vengeance. A heavy black cloud had formed above the masts, casting a dark shadow over the entire ship, and from the stern a blood-red flag with a line of three black stars fluttered ominously.
Nicko did not need the flag to tell him whose ship it was. No other ship had ever been painted with the strong black tar that DomDaniel used, and no other ship could have been surrounded by such a malevolent atmosphere. He gestured frantically to Jenna and Boy 412 to paddle backward, and a moment later Muriel Two was safely hidden behind the last bend of Deppen Ditch.
“What is it?” whispered Jenna.
“It’s the Vengeance,” whispered Nicko. “DomDaniel’s ship. I reckon it’s waiting for the Apprentice. I bet that’s where the little toad has gone. Pass me the eyeglass, Jen.”
Nicko put the telescope to his eye and saw exactly what he had feared. There in the deep shadows cast by the steep black sides of the hull was the Hunter’s canoe. It lay bobbing in the water, empty and dwarfed by the bulk of the Vengeance, tied to the foot of a long rope ladder that led up to the ship’s deck.
The Apprentice had kept his appointment.
“It’s too late,” said Nicko. “He’s there. Oh, yuck, what’s that? Oh, disgusting. That Thing’s just slipped out from inside the canoe. It’s so slimy. But it can certainly get up a rope ladder. It’s like some gruesome monkey.” Nicko shuddered.
“Can you see the Apprentice?” whispered Jenna.
Nicko swept the eyeglass up the rope ladder. He nodded. Sure enough, the Apprentice had almost reached the top, but he had stopped and was staring down in horror at the rapidly climbing Thing. In a matter of moments the Magog had reached the Apprentice and scuttled over him, leaving a trail of vivid yellow slime across the back of his robes. The Apprentice seemed to falter for a moment and almost loosen his grip on the ladder, but he struggled up the last few rungs and collapsed on the deck, where he lay unnoticed for some time.
Serves him right, thought Nicko.
They decided to take a closer look at the Vengeance on foot. They tied Muriel Two to a rock and walked along to the beach where they had had the midnight picnic the night of their escape from the Castle. As they rounded the bend Jenna got a shock. Someone was already there. She stopped dead and ducked back behind an old tree trunk. Boy 412 and Nicko bumped into her.
“What is it?” whispered Nicko.
“There’s someone on the beach,” whispered Jenna. “Maybe it’s someone from the ship. Keeping guard.”
Nicko peered around the tree trunk.
“It’s not someone from the ship.” He smiled.
“How do you know?” asked Jenna. “It could be.”
“Because it’s Alther.”
Alther Mella was sitting on the beach, staring mournfully out into the drizzle. He had been there for days, hoping that someone from Keeper’s Cottage would turn up. He needed to talk to them urgently.
“Alther?” whispered Jenna.
“Princess!” Alther’s careworn face lit up. He wafted over to Jenna and enfolded her in a warm hug. “Well, I do believe you’ve grown since I last saw you.”
Jenna put her fingers to her lips. “Shhh, they might hear us, Alther,” she said.
Alther looked surprised. He wasn’t used to Jenna telling him what to do.
“They can’t hear me.” He chuckled. “Not unless I want them to. And they can’t hear you either—I’ve put up a Scream Screen. They won’t hear a thing.”
“Oh, Alther,” said Jenna. “It is so lovely to see you. Isn’t it, Nicko?”
Nicko had a big grin on his face. “It’s great,” he said.
Alther gave Boy 412 a quizzical look. “Here’s someone else who’s grown too.” He smiled. “Those Young Army lads are always so painfully thin. It’s nice to see you’ve filled out a bit.”
Boy 412 blushed.
“He’s nice now too, Uncle Alther,” Jenna told the ghost.
“I expect he was always nice, Princess,” said Alther. “But you’re not allowed to be nice in the Young Army. It’s forbidden.”
He smiled at Boy 412.
Boy 412 smiled shyly back.
They sat on the drizzly beach, just out of sight of the Vengeance.
“How’s Mum and Dad?” asked Nicko.
“And Simon?” asked Jenna. “What about Simon?”
“Ah, Simon,” said Alther. “Simon had deliberately slipped away from Sarah in the Forest. Seems he and Lucy Gringe had planned to secretly get married.”
“What?” said Nicko. “Simon got married?”
“No. Gringe found out and shopped him to the Custodian Guards.”
“Oh, no!” gasped Jenna and Nicko.
“Oh, don’t worry yourselves about Simon,” said Alther, strangely unsympathetic. “How he managed to spend all that time in the custody of the Supreme Custodian and come out looking like he’d had a holiday, I don’t know. Although I have my suspicions.”
“How do you mean, Uncle Alther?” asked Jenna.
“Oh, it’s probably nothing, Princess.” Alther seemed unwilling to say any more about Simon.
There was something Boy 412 wanted to ask but it felt odd talking to a ghost. But he had to ask, so he plucked up his courage and said, “Er, excuse me, but what’s happened to Marcia? Is she all right?”
Alther sighed. “No,” he said.
“No?” three voices asked at once.
“She was set up,” Alther frowned. “Set up by the Supreme Custodian and the Rat Office. He’s put his own rats in. Or rather DomDaniel’s rats. And a vicious lot they are too. They used to run the spy network back at DomDaniel’s place in the Badlands. They’ve got a very nasty reputation. Came in with the plague rats hundreds of years ago. Not nice.”