"Wh-who's that?" asked Jenna, almost more scared of the strange little voice than she had been of the Land Wurm.
"It's meStanley. Don't you remember me?" The voice sounded somewhat aggrieved. Jenna peered into the darkness againthere was something there. It was a rat. A small brown rat lay sprawled across the horse's back, desperately clinging to the saddle.
"Could you just ... stop for a mo while I ... sort myself out?" the rat asked, bouncing around on Thunder's back as the horse galloped into the night. "I think I've ... landed on my sandwiches."
Jenna stared at the rat.
"Just slow ... down ... a bit," he pleaded.
"Whoa, Thunder," said Jenna, reining the horse in. "Slow down, boy." Thunder slowed to a trot.
"Ta. That's better." Still clinging tightly to the saddle, the rat hauled himself to a sitting position. "I'm not a natural horse rat," he said, "though I suppose they're better than donkeys. Don't like donkeys. Or their owners. Mad as snakes the lot of them. Don't get me wrongI don't mean that about horses. Or their owners. Perfectly sane. Most of 'em at any rate, although I must say I have known some that"
Suddenly Jenna remembered who the rat was. "Message Rat!" she gasped. "You're the Message Rat. The one we rescued from Mad Jack and his donkey."
"Got it in one," grinned the rat. "Spot on. But yours truly is no longer a Message Rathad a bit of an argy-bargy with the Rat Office in the bad old days. Ended up in a cage under the floor for weeks. Not nice. Not fun. Got rescued and retrained with the"the rat stopped and looked around as if to check whether anyone else might be listening"Secret Rat Service," he whispered.
"The what?" asked Jenna.
The rat tapped the side of his nose knowingly. "Very hush-hushknow what I mean? Least said, soonest mended and all that."
"Oh," said Jenna, who did not have the faintest idea what the rat meant but did not want to get into a conversation about it just then. "Yes, of course."
"Best thing I ever did," said the rat. "Just finished my training last week in fact. And then, blow me down, my first mission is tor the ExtraOrdinary. Quite a coup, I can tell you. It impressed the lads on the course."
"Oh, that's nice," said Jenna. "So what's this mission, then?"
"Find and return. Priority number one."
"Ah. So who do you have to find and return?"
"You," said Stanley with a grin.
Chapter 19 The Sheeplands
Dawn was breaking when Thunder's hooves slipped and slid around the last bend of a shale-covered footpath, and Jenna saw to her delight that at long last they had reached the end of the Badlands. Stanley saw nothing. The rat was clinging to the edge of the saddle with his eyes tightly closed, convinced that any minute now all three of them would be plunging over the edge of the path to the rocks below.
Jenna stopped for a moment and gazed out across the wide flat fields of the Sheeplands, which were spread out before them. It was beautiful, and it reminded her of the first morning she had woken up at Aunt Zelda's and sat on the doorstep watching and listening to the Marsh. Far away on the horizon a brilliant band of pink clouds showed where the sun was rising, while the fields themselves were still shrouded with the soft gray light of early dawn. Pockets of mist lay over the water channels and the marshy parts of the fields, and a peaceful silence filled the air.
"We've done it, Thunder," Jenna said with a laugh, patting the horse's neck. "We've done it, boy."
The horse shook his head and snorted as he breathed in the salty air that was blowing in from the sea on the other side of the Sheeplands. Jenna led Thunder down onto a wide grassy track and then let the horse loose to graze on the springy grass, while Stanley lay sprawled across the saddle, snoring loudly, having at last fallen into an exhausted sleep.
Jenna sat on the edge of the track and leaned back against the foot of the slate cliff. She felt ravenous. She rummaged through Simon's saddlebag and found a stale loaf, a small box of dried fruits and a rather battered and bruised apple. Jenna ate the lot and washed it down with a drink from an ice-cold spring that bubbled at the base of the cliff. Then she sat and gazed at the mist, which was slowly disappearing to reveal the round woolly shapes of grazing sheep dotted across the pastures.
The peaceful silence, broken only by the steady munching of the horse and the occasional cry of a lone marsh bird, made Jenna feel very drowsy. She tried to fight the urge to fall asleep, but it was impossible. A few moments later, she was curled up in Lucy's cloak, deep in a dreamless sleep.
At the very moment Jenna fell asleep, Simon awoke. He sat up in his bed, aching all over and feeling irritable. He was not sure why. And then he remembered. Jenna. He had snatched Jenna. He had done itdone what had been asked of him. His Master, Simon thought as he got out of bed, would be pleased. But Simon had an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach that would not go away. For now he had the second part of his task to fulfill. He had to take Jenna down to the Magog lair. He wandered into the Observatory and noticed that Sleuth was not at its post guarding his bedroom door.
"Sleuth!" Simon yelled angrily, expecting the ball to come bouncing over to him. "Sleuth!" There was no response. Feeling even more irritable, Simon padded across the cold and clammy slate in his bare feet to fix a glass of Nekawa to settle his nerves. Carefully, he poured a muddy brown liquid with tendrils of floating mold into a tall glass, cracked a raw egg into it and gulped it down. It tasted foul.
Feeling more awake, Simon looked around the slate chamber to see where Sleuth had gone. Sleuth would regret leaving its post when Simon found it, he'd make sure of that
"What the-what's going on?" Simon raced over to the cell door.
The Jenna-sized slab of chocolate lay flat on the floor, and Simon did not need to open the cell to know that he would not find Jenna inside. But he opened it anyway, angrily throwing the door back so that it hit the wall with a violent bang and promptly shattered into thousands of pieces of the very best chocolate.
Simon swore. All his hopes vanished at the sight of the empty cell. He threw himself to the floor and had a few minutes of what Sarah Heap used to call "tantrum time" before he finally got up from the floor and began to think again. Jenna couldn't have got far. He would send Sleuth after her with a Tag.
"Sleuth!" Simon yelled furiously at the top of his voice. "Sleuth! If you don't come out right now you will be sorry. Extremely sorry!"
There was no response. Simon stood in the silent Observatory and smiled to himself. Now he knew what had happened: Jenna had taken Sleuth with her. The silly kid had thought that Sleuth was just a handy light. He'd find them both down in the Burrow. Simon's musings were interrupted by a strange sound coming from the Glo Grub Tub. He went over and found the lid was locked. That was oddhe couldn't remember locking the Tub; in fact he never bothered to lock the Glo Grubsthey were all too scared to even try to escape. So what had he done with the key? And what was that noise? Simon put his ear to the Tub and heard the unmistakable sound of bouncing. Bouncing? Sleuth!
After giving up the search for the key, Simon took a crowbar to the lid and levered it off. Sleuth shot out like a cork from a bottle, showering Simon with hundreds of sticky Glo Grubs.
"Right!" yelled Simon. "That's it! She's in for it now. Tag on Jenna, Sleuth. Go!" Simon hurled the sticky green ball across the Observatory and followed it as it bounced past the skull, through the archway and shot off on the long descent down the steps. Sleuth and Simon reached the bottom of the steps, skidded on the Magog slime and raced along the passage that led to the old Wurm Chamber.
"She'll be down here, Sleuth," Simon puffed as they neared the Wurm Chamber. "Down here, scared out of her wits. Or maybe she's done me a favor and found herself a nice Magog. Save me a lot of trouble that would, Sleuth. Heycareful, you stupid ball." Simon ducked to avoid Sleuth as the ball suddenly bounced back at him. "Just get in there, will you?" he shouted. "This is no time to be playing games." The ball tried again but bounced back and hit Simon on the nose. Furious, Simon snatched up the ball and strode into the Wurm Chamberstraight into the thick slimy hide of a Land Wurm.
Simon recoiled in shock. What had happened? How on earth had the Land Wurm got in? And then a terrible thought struck Simon.