Jenna gasped; a large hand had grabbed hold of the reins. She looked up, expecting to see one of the sailors angry because Thunder had stepped on his rope, but instead she found herself staring at the dark-haired stranger she had seen standing beside the Customs Officer.

"Let go," Jenna told the man, angrily. "Let go of my horse."

The stranger kept his grip on the reins and stared intently at Jenna. "Who are you?" he asked in a low voice.

"None of your business," said Jenna briskly, determined not to show how scared she was. "Let go of my horse."

The man dropped his grip from the reins but he did not drop his gaze from Jenna's face. He stared at her with an intense expression that Jenna found unsettling. Flustered, she looked away and quickly swung herself back into the saddle, kicking Thunder into a fast trot and leaving the stranger staring after her on the dockside.

"Left here. I said left!" shouted Stanley, hanging on tight to Thunder's ears.

Thunder shot off to the right.

"Don't know why I bother," Stanley muttered. But Jenna didn't care which way they were going. Any direction was fine, as long as it was as far away from the tall stranger as possible.

The Doll House

"I am not lost," said Stanley indignantly. "A member of the Secret Rat Service is never lost. I am merely reassessing the direction."

"Well, get a move on and reassess a bit faster," said Jenna, glancing along the street, "before that man from the docks catches up with us. I'm sure he followed me."

Stanley and Jenna were in the middle of The Rope Walk, a street just off Tavern Row, in the seedier part of the Port. Jenna had dismounted from Thunder when the rat insisted that the extremely ramshackle house in front of them was Florrie Bundy's lodging house. Unfortunately, it was not. It actually belonged to the notorious Port Witch Coven, who were most definitely not White Witches and did not take kindly to a rat banging on their door late at night. Stanley had narrowly avoided becoming a toad. It was only Jenna's speedy intervention with a silver half-crownwhich she gave the uitch to buy back the toad spellthat had saved him.

"I don't understand it," Stanley muttered a little shakily, running his paws over his face just to make sure he still had rat fur and not toad warts. "I was sure that was Florrie's place."

"Maybe it was," said Jenna disconsolately. "Maybe the witches changed her into a toad too."

The street was busy with people coming and going. A late-night circus performance was taking place on a field just outside the Port, and noisily chattering circus-goers were pushing past Jenna, Thunder and Stanley.

Out of the chat, two familiar voices reached Jenna's ears. "But she said, Don't go to the circus."

"Oh, come on. It'll be fun. You're not going to take any notice of all that rubbish she told us, are you?"

Jenna knew those voices. She scanned the crowd but could see nothing. "Septimus? Nicko?" she shouted.

"That's funny, Sep," said a voice behind a very large woman who was walking toward Jenna, carrying two huge picnic hampers, "I thought I heard someone yell our names."

"Probably some other people called the same."

"No one's got weird names like us, Sep. Especially like you."

"Well, Nicko is pretty peculiar if you ask me. At least mine means something."

Now Jenna was sureand suddenly, there was Septimus's straw-colored hair bobbing around behind one of the picnic hampers. She darted forward and grabbed him. "Septimus!" she yelled. "It's youOh, Sep!" Septimus stared at Jenna. He could not believe his eyes. "Jen?" he gasped. "But ... hey, Jen. Oh, you're all right. You're safe. And you really are here. I don't believe it!"

Jenna swung Septimus around in a bear hug; then Nicko pounced on them both and nearly squashed them. "Hey, hey! We found you, we found you. Are you okay, Jen? What happened?"

"Tell you later. Hey, is he with you?" Jenna had noticed Wolf Boy. He had hung back from the reunion and looked a little lost.

"Yep. Tell you later," Nicko said with a grin.

"Look, would you mind getting off my tail?" Stanley asked Nicko, who in his excitement had stepped on the rat. Nicko glanced down; Stanley glared up at him. "It hurts," he said. "You've got very heavy feet."

"Sorry," said Nicko. He moved his boot. "Hey, look, Jen. It's the Message Rat."

"Secret Rat," Stanley corrected. "Go anywhere. Do anything."

"Except find Florrie Bundy's lodging house," said Jenna.

"Found it," declared Stanley, pointing to a garish building with all the bricks painted in different colors, next to the Witches' house. On the door was a big hand-drawn, painted sign that read


"She's decorated it since I was last here. And changed the name. Follow me."

Ten minutes later, the horse boy had taken Thunder to the stable at the back of the house and Nurse Mereditha large, disheveled woman with mad, staring eyeshad told them that she had taken over from Florrie not long ago. Nurse Meredith had carefully counted out Jenna's money three times and thrust it into a deep pocket in her none-too-clean apron. Now Jenna, Nicko, Septimus, Wolf Boy and Stanley were following the bulky figure of the Nurse up a dusty flight of stairs.

"You'll have to go in the annex," she told them, as she squeezed around a particularly tight corner. "It's my last room. You're lucky. I'm very busy tonight, what with the circus being in town. Very popular with the circus crowd, I am."

"Really?" said Jenna politely, carefully stepping over a large doll that was sprawled across a step. The lodging house was stuffed full of dolls of all shapes and sizes. They were imprisoned in glass cases, piled high on overcrowded hammocks slung from the ceiling and nailed to the walls. An endless array of dolls was lined up on the stairs and Nicko had already managed to tread on at least two. Septimus was doing his best to avoid even looking at them. The dolls made him shiver; there was something dead about their gaze, and as he passed each one he could not shake off the feeling of something watching him.

"Mind my babies!" said Nurse Meredith sharply, as Nicko stepped on yet another doll. "You do that again and you'll be out of here, young man."

"Sorry," Nicko mumbled, wondering why Jenna wanted to stay in such a strange place.

At last they reached the top of the house, but as they did so, a loud banging on the front door reverberated up the stairs. Nurse Meredith leaned over the banister and yelled down to the skivvy who lived in the cupboard under the stairs. "We're full, Maureen. Tell 'em to buzz off."

Maureen scuttled off to open the door. Jenna looked down, curious to see who on earth would want to stay in the Doll House. As the thin, timid skivvy pulled the door open, Jenna gasped and jumped back into the shadows. Standing on the doorstep was the figure she had dreaded seeingthe stranger from the docks.

"What's wrong, Jen?" Nicko whispered.

"Th-that man at the door. He followed me from the docks. He's after me..."

"Who is he, Jen?"

"I-1 don't know. But I think he must have something to do with Simon."

"Well, I don't care who he is to do with, missy," snapped Nurse Meredith. "He's not staying here tonight."

Far below them Maureen's reedy voice could be heard. "I'm sorry, sir. We are full tonight."

The stranger's voice was breathless and a little agitated. "I do not wish to stay, miss. I was only inquiring. I was told that a young lady with a horse was staying"

"Telll him to buzz off, Maureen!" the Nurse yelled down.

"Er, sorry, sir. Buzz off, please," said Maureen apologetically, and closed the door firmly.

To Jenna's dismay the stranger continued to bang on the door, but Nurse Meredith was having none of it. "Go and chuck a bucket of dirty dishwater over him, Maureen!" she yelled crossly. Maureen went to do her bidding and Nurse Meredith turned her attention to her latest guests. "Follow me, please," she said, and she climbed out of a tall window.

Jenna, Nicko and Septimus glanced at each other. Follow her out the window? Why?

Nurse Meredith's head appeared in the window. "For Heaven's sake,I haven't got all night," she chided. "Are you coming or not? Because if you're not I'll go and get the gentleman that just called and let him have the room. Ungrateful kids."

Tags: Angie Sage Septimus Heap Fantasy