Septimus closed his eyes tightly as they were lifted through the cold night air, but Nicko kept his eyes wide-open in shock is they traveled up, up through the massive tree, until they were high above the baying pack of wolverines. Nicko glanced below to the ring of yellow eyes that surrounded the tree and were staring, unblinking, at the sight of the night's supperand a good supper toowhisked from their jaws.
The tree, like all trees, moved slowly and deliberately. Why rush when you had hundreds of years in which to live your life? Why rush when you were more than three hundred feet tall and a king of the Forest? After what felt like a lifetime, Septimus and Nicko were set down in a fork near the top of the tree. The branches that had been caging them slowly unwound from their captives and hovered above them, as though planning their next move.
"Is it going to eat us now, Sep?" whispered Nicko, his voice shaking.
"Dunno," mumbled Septimus, who still had his eyes closed tightly. He could feel how high they were above the ground, but he did not dare look.
"But it's let go of us, Sep. Maybe we could escape while we've got the chance..."
Septimus shook his head miserably. He was paralyzed by the height; he could no more move than fly to the moon. Nicko stole another glance downward. Through a gap in the leaves he could see the circle of wolverines, eyes glittering hungrily, waiting in the hope that their prey might still turn upor drop downfor supper. Suddenly it crossed Nicko's mind that this must have happened to the wolverine pack before. Sometime in the past, some poor victim must have been swept from the pack by a carnivorous tree, and then escaped the clutches of the strangling branches, only to find himself back in the middle of the wolverine ring. Nicko imagined what a terrible fate that was for someoneuntil it suddenly struck him that that was happening to them. Nicko let out a loud groan.
"What's the matter, Nik?" mumbled Septimus.
"Oh, nothing. We're about to be eaten either by a carnivorous tree or a pack of wolverines, and I can't quite make up my mind just now which one I fancy most."
Septimus forced himself to open his eyes. It wasn't quite as bad as he had feared. He couldn't see much at allthe moonless night was dark and the tree's dense summer foliage obscured any view of the long drop to the ground. "Well, no one's eaten us yet," he said.
"Yet," muttered Nicko.
But as Nicko spoke, the two branches that hovered above began to move down toward them again. Nicko grabbed hold ot Septimus's sleeve. "C'mon, Sep," he whispered urgently. "It's now or never. We've got to get out of here. I reckon we can make a break for itthis tree is slow. It only got us because we were too busy with the wolverines to notice it coming for us. If we climb down fast, it won't be able to catch us."
"But then the wolverines will get us," whispered Septimus, who was convinced the tree could hear what they were saying.
"They might give up. You never know. Come on, it's our only chance." Nicko began to crawl along the branch.
The last thing Septimus wanted to do was to move anywherehe was, after all, at least three hundred feet above the ground. But, knowing he had no real choice, Septimus half-closed his eyes so that there was no chance of catching sight of the huge drop to the ground and slowly began to inch his way along the branch behind Nicko. Nicko had already reached the fork in the branch where he was planning to start his climb down. He turned and held out his hand to Septimus.
"Come on, Sep. You're even slower than this tree. Come on, it's easy."
Septimus did not reply. His hands were clammy with fear and he felt sick.
"Don't look down," Nicko encouraged. "Just look at me. Come on, you're nearly there..."
Septimus looked up at Nicko and suddenly his head swam, a strange faraway buzzing started inside his ears, and his clammy hands lost their grip on the smooth branch.
He fell too fast for Nicko to do anything. One moment Nicko was sitting on the branch watching his brother crawl toward him, the next moment he was sitting watching an empty space. And all he could hear was the sound of Septimus crashing through the tree far below him, followed by a howl from one of the waiting wolverines.
And then silence. Nicko heard nothing more, except the rustling of leaves and branches and the stillness of the Forest. Nicko sat numbly on the branch, unable to move. He should start his climb down; he should try and get to Septimus but he dreaded what he was going to find. And so, slowly, reluctantly, Nicko began the long climb to the Forest floor, but, as he clambered down through the tree, a long thin branch suddenly looped itself around his waist and held him fast. Nicko struggled and tried to unwind the branch, but it was as tight as a band of iron. Angrily Nicko kicked out at the tree.
"Let me go!" he shouted. "I've got to get my brother!" In a fury Nicko tore the leaves around him to pieces, snapping as many twigs as he could find.
"Ouch," said a low, slow voice, but Nicko heard nothing.
"I hate you, you pig tree!" he yelled, punching and flailing at it. "You're not going to eat me. Or Sep. Just you try." Nicko gave way to a frenzy of kicking, shouting and insulting the tree, remembering all the bad language that he had recently picked up at the Port and from Rupert Gringe. In fact Nicko was surprised at how much he knew. So was the tree, who had never heard anything like it before.
The tree impassively ignored Nicko's outburst. It just held him tight while far below it carried on doing what it had been doing ever since Septimus had fallen. Nicko was still shouting at the tree when the branches beside him parted and Septimus appeared back at his side, wrapped up tightly in a cocoon of leaves and twigs. Nicko fell silent. He went white. This, he thought, is what spiders do to their prey. Only the week before he had sat on the boat and watched a spider wrap a struggling fly into a cocoon of silk, and then suck it dry while the fly still lived.
"Sep!" Nicko gasped. "Are you all right?" Septimus did not answer. His eyes were closed and he looked deathly white. A terrible thought crossed Nicko's mind. "Sep," he whispered. "Sep, has it started to eat you?" He struggled to reach Septimus but the branch held him tight.
"Nicko," came a low voice.
"Sep?" asked Nicko, wondering why his brother sounded so strange.
"Nicko, please stop struggling. You might fall. It is a long way down and the wolverines are still waiting for you. Please keep still."
Nicko stared at Septimus, wondering how he was managing to talk without moving his lips.
"Sep, stop being silly, will you?"
"Nicko, listen to me, this is not Septimus speaking. Septimus has hit his head. He needs to rest."
A chill ran through Nicko, and for the first time in the Forest he felt really scared. He had known where he was with the wolverines and he had known where he was with the carnivorous treethey had wanted to eat him. It wasn't nice and it wasn't friendly but at least it was understandable. But this low, ghostly voice was different. He had no idea what it was; it seemed to be all around him, and the spookiest thing of all was that it knew his name.
"Who are you?" whispered Nicko.
"Do you not know? I thought you had come to see me specially." The voice sounded disappointed. "I never see anyone anymore. No one ever comes to see me. I would have thought my son might have made the effort, but oh, no, can't be bothered as usual I suppose. So when I saw my two youngest grandsons I naturally thought..."
"Grandsons?" asked Nicko, taken aback.
"Yes, you and Septimus," said the voice. "I would have known you anywhere, you look so much like Silas did when he was a lad."
Suddenly a huge feeling of relief flooded through Nicko. He hardly dared believe their luck.
"You're notyou're not Grandpa Benji, are you?" he asked the tree.
"Of course I am. Who did you think I was?" said the voice.
"A carnivorous tree," said Nicko.
"Me? A carnivorous tree? Do I look like a carnivorous tree?"
"I don't know. I've never seen one."
"Well, let me tell you, they don't look anything like me. Mangy things they are, don't even bother to keep themselves clean. Smell of rotting meat. Nasty black leaves and covered in fungus. Give the Forest a bad name."
"Oh ... oh, fantastic! I don't believe it. Grandpa Benji..." Nicko sank back in relief and his grandfather unwound the branch that had been stopping his grandson from moving.