"You're not going to start climbing down now, are you?" asked the tree. "Those wolverines will wait a while yet. Just stay still a moment and I'll make you up a bed. Don't move."
"No. All right, Grandpa. I won't," said Nicko rather faintly. He sat on the branch feeling like a small lump of jelly. And, for the first time since he had set foot in the Forest, he began to relax.
The tree busied itself weaving its branches into a platform and covering them with a soft bed of leaves.
"There," the tree said proudly when it had finished, "you see, it's no trouble at all to make up a bed. Any of you boys can always come and stay. Your father too. And your dear mother. Any time."
The tree carefully lifted Septimus onto the platform and laid him down, still wrapped in the cocoon that held him safely.
"I only just caught him in time, you know," the tree told Nicko. "A second later and the wolverines would have had him. As it was one of them jumped up and snapped at the lad. It was close."
Nicko crawled onto the platform beside Septimus and started to unwind the cocoon. As he did so, Nicko saw that a large bruise was appearing on Septimus's head where he had hit a branch on his way down.
"Ouch..." mumbled Septimus. "Gerroff, Nik."
Nicko was so happy to hear Septimus's voice. "Hey, Sepyou're all right. What a relief."
Blearily, Septimus sat up and looked at Nicko. The bruise above his eye throbbed, but he didn't care; he knew they were safe. As he had fallen through the tree Septimus had hit his head and been briefly knocked out, but, while he was being gently lifted back up through the leaves, the sound of the tree's deep voice all around him had pulled him back to consciousness, and Septimus had heard his grandfather's conversation with Nicko. At first he had thought he was dreaming, but when he opened his eyes and saw Nicko's relieved expression, he knew it must be true.
"Mrrer..." Septimus mumbled, grinning faintly.
"It's Grandpa Benji, Sep. We're safe!" Nicko told him excitedly. "But you gotta go to sleep now," he said, noticing how pale his brother looked. "You'll be fine in the morning." Nicko lay down on the platform beside Septimus and held on to him tightly, just to make sure he didn't fall off again.
The moonlight shone down through the leaves, and Grandpa Benji swayed to and fro in the nighttime breeze, lulling the boys into a peaceful doze. They had just dropped off to sleep when a terrible howling echoed through the tree.
This was followed by an awful coughing, spluttering noise.
"Ach ach ach!"
Nicko knew it was the wolverines. "They can't climb trees, can they Sep?" he asked.
Septimus shook his head and wished he hadn't.
With some trepidation, Nicko and Septimus looked down through the platform to the wolverines. The whole pack seemed to have gone mad. They were running around and around the tree, yelping and yowling and desperately pawing at their noses.
"What are they doing?" muttered Nicko.
Suddenly Septimus snorted with laughter. "Look," he said, "they've eaten my backpack"
"Well, I wouldn't have thought it tasted that bad," said Nicko.
"and they've found the Mint Blasts!" Septimus laughed.
Chapter 15 The Badlands
While Septimus and Nicko were getting lost far away in the Forest, Simon Heap was taking Jenna deep into the Badlands.
Thunder stumbled slowly up a narrow track, which wound through endless slate quarries, some old and abandoned, oth' ers with signs of recent work, although eerily deserted. The disturbed earth and the shattered rocks gave off a malevolent atmosphere, and Jenna felt her spirits sink. Far above her, a ~ournful moan drifted from the desolate tops of the hills trie east wind was blowing in and thick gray clouds were piling up in the sky. The sunlight grew dim and the air became chill. Simon wrapped his long black cloak around him, but enna was shivering; all she had to keep her warm was her light summer tunic.
"Stop shivering, will you?" growled Simon.
"I don't have a cloak like you do," snapped Jenna.
"You wouldn't want a cloak like mine." Simon sneered. "Too much Darke Magyk for Little Miss Perfect here."
"You shouldn't joke about that stuff, Simon," protested Jenna.
"Who said I was joking?" asked Simon.
Jenna fell silent, still shivering.
"Oh, have this then and stop fussing," said Simon, exasperated. He fished out a cloak from his saddlebag and grumpily handed it to Jenna. Jenna took the cloak, expecting to find a rough horse blanket, and was amazed at what Simon had given her. It was the most beautiful cloak that she had ever seena rich, deep blue, finely woven from the softest wool combed from the belly of a mountain goat, and lined in golden silk. Simon had intended it as a present for Lucy Gringe. He had planned to leave it outside the gatehouse, with a note tucked inside the lining that only Lucy would find. But when Simon had arrived at the North Gate early that morning, with his dark cloak pulled high around his face to avoid Gringe recognizing him, he had seen Silas jauntily walking down the street carrying the box of Counter-Feet. The last person Simon wanted to see was his father, and he had quickly changed direction and taken a shortcut to Wizard Way. Silas had not even noticed himhe had been too busy going over his strategy for that morning's game. So now, to Simon's irritation, the beautiful and extremely expensive cloak he had chosen for Lucy was wrapped around Little Miss Princess Perfect.
Jenna pulled Lucy's cloak tightly around herself. She was warm now, but very tired, in front of Simon on the weary horse. The dark slate quarries went endlessly on, and Thunder was plodding up a steady incline. The track had narrowed; it was bound on one side by steep slate cliffs that rose into the overcast sky, and on the other side by a deep ravine, at the bottom of which was a dark swirling river full of jagged rocks and treacherous whirlpools. Jenna wondered if Simon was ever going to stop; he seemed to have no concern for her or his horse. Thunder was tiring fast, and once or twice the horse had lost his footing on the loose scree, which covered the sides of the gray slate hills, and had nearly sent them all plunging into the river below.
Suddenly Simon spoke. "Whoa, Thunder, whoa there, boy." Thunder slowed to a halt and shook his head, snorting wearily. Jenna glanced about, suddenly anxious now that they had stopped.
Quickly, Simon dismounted from Thunder and took the reins. "You can get off," he told Jenna. "We're here."
With a sinking feeling, Jenna slipped off the horse and stood, undecided whether to make a run for it or not. The trouble was, there didn't seem to be anywhere to run to. Simon read her thoughts.
"Don't be stupid and run off," he told her sharply. "There's nowhere for you to go, unless you want to find yourself in a Land Wurm's Burrow."
"Don't try and frighten me, Simon," said Jenna. "You know as well as I do they only come out at night."
"Oh, do they now? Of course I forgotLittle Miss Princess knows everything there is to know, doesn't she? Well, I can leave you out here tonight, if you like. There's a nice selection of Wurm Burrows up there if you want to go and have a look."
Jenna was not tempted to take up Simon's challenge. She had been told too many stories about the huge gray Land Wurms that lived in the slate hills and preyed on passing travelers at night. Some Castle people thought they were nothing more than old miners' tales, told in order to keep people out of the slate workings, where the purest gold was sometimes found, but Jenna knew better. So she stood beside Thunder in Lucy's cloak and stared fixedly at the ground, determined not to give Simon the pleasure of seeing her look frightened.
Simon took hold of Thunder's bridle. "Follow me," he told Jenna, and he led the horse up a steep winding path while Jenna followed, glancing behind to check that she was not being trailed by a Land Wurm. She had a feeling that Simon would not rush to her rescue if she was.
Suddenly the path came to an unexpected end at a sheer rock face.
"Home sweet home," said Simon with a wry grimace. Jenna stared at him, wondering if Simon had perhaps lost his mind. It would explain a lot.
"Open to you commands, Master your, Nomis," muttered Simon. Jenna listened carefully to what he said and shivered it was, she knew with a feeling of horror, a Reverse Incantation. She took a step back, unwilling to be close to any Darke Magyk.
Silently, part of the rock face Transformed into a massive round iron plug, which swung outward and upward to open for its Master. Jenna glanced behind her; it briefly crossed her mind to turn and run, but the sight of the dark and lonely valley and the sound of the wind whining across the hilltops was not appealing. Then, as she glanced up, Jenna saw something that made her heart jump into her mouthfrom a dark, perfectly round hole halfway up a nearby overhang, she thought she caught sight of a pair of pale red Land Wurm eyes staring out at her.