"All right, Jannit," said Rupert, "I'll be off then. I'm looking forward to a bit of peace and quiet after that creaking, moaning boat we've been stuck on."
"Er, Rupert," Septimus said, feeling that he ought to say something. "It's, um, not exactly ... quiet at the gatehouse. There's been a bit of trouble."
Rupert looked at Septimus suspiciously. He had inherited his father's mistrust of the Heaps, and although he had to admit that Nicko Heap wasn't too bad, he was none too sure about the fancy Wizard's Apprentice all dressed up in his swanky bright green tunic and dinky Apprentice belt.
"Yeah?" he said warily. "What trouble?"
"I knew it!" exploded Rupert. "I knew it would be your blasted brother! I'll get him this time. I will!"
Rupert Gringe hurtled off across the boatyard.
"there now," Septimus finished lamely as Rupert tripped over a bucket and disappeared into the tunnel more quickly than he had expected to.
"What's up, Sep?" asked Nicko, who could see his younger brother was upset.
"Simon kidnapped Jenna and no one will believe me, not even Marcia," Septimus gabbled in a rush.
"Simon's kidnapped Jenna and"
"Yes all right, Sep, I heard what you said. Come and sit down and tell me about it." Nicko climbed ashore and put his arm around Septimus's shoulder. They sat together with their feet dangling in the Moat while Septimus told Nicko the whole story. As the story progressed Nicko's expression became increasingly worried. Finally Septimus came to the end and said, "...but I bet you don't believe me either."
"Of Course I believe you."
"Do you?" Septimus looked at Nicko questioningly.
"Yeah. I know people are after Jenna. I was going to tell Mum to be more careful. Seems like I'm too late..."
"What do you meanpeople?" asked Septimus. "You mean, not just Simon?"
"Well, maybe Simon has something to do with them. I wouldn't be surprised. But when me an' Rupert were down at the Port getting a new mastwhich reminds me I must tell Jannit that the new one is rubbish and won't last five minuteswell, we spent a lot of time in the Blue Anchor Tavern by the docks. You get all sorts in there. We met Alther's old girlfriend Alice Nettles. She works for the Customs House now"
"Yesand?" said Septimus impatiently, wondering where Nicko's ramblings were leading him.
"And Alice told us that there was someone in Port looking for Jenna."
"Dunno who. A dark stranger, Alice called him. Just come in from the Far Countries. His ship was still anchored offshore, waiting for a berth on Customs Quay, but he'd got himself rowed in and he'd been asking all sorts of questions about the Princess."
"What kind of questions?" asked Septimus.
"Oh, you know the kind of thing. Was she really alive? Where could he find her? Stuff like that. Alice just stonewalled him. She's good at that, is Alice."
Septimus stared at the murky water of the Moat. "That's it then. I bet Simon is taking Jenna to the dark stranger," he said gloomily.
"He probably paid Simon well enough," said Nicko, who did not have a good opinion of his eldest brother.
"And I can guess who the dark stranger is..."
"Can you?" asked Nicko, surprised.
"DomDaniel," whispered Septimus.
"But he's dead."
"He disappeared. Sucked down into the Marsh. But that doesn't mean he's dead, does it? From what I know of him, he likes being under the ground."
"I don't know, Sep," said Nicko. "Even Simon wouldn't do a thing like thatwould he?"
Septimus looked Nicko in the eye. "Look, Nik, no one else believes me about Jen being in danger so I don't expect you to either. But I don't care what anyone says. I'm going to go and get her back." Septimus stood and heaved his backpack over his shoulders.
"I'll be off then," he said. "Tell Marcia where I've gone. And Mum and Dad. See you." Septimus turned to go.
"Hang on, you dillop," protested Nicko. "I do believe you. And you are not going off on your own either, Sep. How are you going to find her?"
"I'll find her somehow," said Septimus.
"Yeah, one day maybe. If you're lucky. Now I know someone who is the best tracker I have ever met. He'll lead us straight to her. I'll get a boat from Jannit and we'll go find him. You sit right down there again and take that bag of boulders off."
Septimus didn't move.
"Go on, Sep. Do as you're told. I'm your big brother and I'm telling you. Right?"
"You're not that much bigger," muttered Septimus, but he sat down all the same.
Chapter 12 The Forest
Nicko and Septimus pulled their boat up onto a shingle beach in a small inlet on the edge of the Forest. Nicko knew it well; this was where he always moored his boat when he came to visit his brothers. They had sailed about five miles down river from the Castle on the outgoing tide. Jannit had insisted on Nicko taking a small luggera good riverboat which had a cabin in case they had to spend the night in it, but Nicko had hopes of getting straight into the Forest and finding the boys' camp before the sun set. He had no intention of walking through the Forest at night, for it was a dangerous place after dark. Wild packs of wolverines roamed through the trees and many unquiet spirits and malevolent beings hovered in the air. Some trees were carnivorous and would turn into traps at night: they would swoop their branches down and enfold their victims, taking the life blood from them, so that by morning there would be nothing left but a dried-out skeleton hanging among the leaves.
It was late afternoon when they arrived at the beach, and Nicko knew they had five hours of daylight left which was, he reckoned, easily long enough to reach the boys' camp safely.
Septimus had not been in the Forest since he was a Young Army Expendable. He had spent many terrifying nights there as part of the Do-or-Die night exercises that the boy soldiers had to endure. They would be woken in the middle of the night and taken off to somewhere dangerousvery often it was the Forest.
There were two nights in the Forest that Septimus would never forget. One was the time that his very best friend, Boy 409, had rescued him. A pack of wolverines had trapped nim and were about to pounce. Boy 409 had rushed to his side, yelling so loudly that the lead wolverine had, for a brief moment, become confused, and in that moment Boy 409 had hauled Septimus to safety. The other terrible night had been when Septimus wouldn't have cared very much if a pack of wolverines had pounced on him. That was when Boy 409 had fallen overboard on their way down the river to the Forest. The river was rough and flowing fast and a freak wave had hit the Young Army boat. The boat was overloaded and Boy 409 had lost his footing and fallen overboard. He was never seen again. Septimus had begged the Leader Cadet to go back for Boy 409 but he had refused. Boy 409 was just another Expendable, and the whole point of a Do-or-Die exercise had been to weed out "the weak, the scared and the stupid," as the Leader Cadet had put it. But usually the Do-or-Dies, as they were known, simply weeded out the unlucky.
When Nicko was satisfied that the boat was properly tied up to allow for the rise and fall of the tides, and everything onboard was neatly stowed away, he pulled a tattered piece of paper from his pocket. "Here's the map," he said, showing it to Septimus. "Sam drew it."
Septimus looked at the wiggling lines that wandered across the scrap of paper like slug trails over a pane of glass. "Oh," he said. He didn't think much of the map, but Nicko seemed conifident.
"Yes all right," said Nicko reassuringly. "I know the way. Follow me."
Septimus had no trouble following Nicko as they started their journey into the Forest. The outskirts of the Forest were fairly easy to walk through; the trees were widely spaced, and dappled sunlight shone through the branches high above their heads. Nicko confidently took a narrow track and walked briskly along, weaving in and out of the trees along the winding, snakelike track.
As Nicko led them steadily deeper into the Forest, the trees became larger and grew closer together, the sunlight faded into dark green shadows and a heavy silence began to enclose them. Septimus kept close behind Nicko as the track grew narrower and more overgrown. Neither of them spoke; Nicko was trying to remember the way, and Septimus was occupied with his own thoughts. He was wondering what he was doing, walking deep into the Forest when he had set off to go to the Farmlands. Jenna must be miles away by now, on the other side of the riverand here he was going in the opposite direction, just because Nicko had persuaded him to. After a while Septimus broke the silence and said, "Are you sure they'll want to help?"