The large horse with a rat perched upon his saddle and four figures walking beside him made slow but steady progress along the Causeway. They had passed the fields that surrounded the Port and had now reached the reed beds, which provided thatch, baskets, flooring and all manner of bits and pieces for the inhabitants of the Port. As the morning sun rose higher it burned off the few remaining tendrils of mist that hung over the reed beds, which stretched almost as far as the eye could see. Beyond the reed beds lay the Marram Marshes, still shrouded in thick marsh mist.
Stanley was keeping what he called a low profile. He was not a happy rat that morning, for he had just recognized the turn-off to Mad Jack's hovel where, the previous year, he had spent the six most miserable weeks of his life being imprisoned in a rat cage; he had only managed to escape after starving himself until he was thin enough to squeeze through the bars.
It was midmorning by the time Stanley saw that the reed beds were growing sparser and he smelled the dank smell of the Marram Marshes drifting in, and he at last relaxednow that they were well away from Mad Jack. Soon the Causeway petered out into a boggy track and the group came to a halt.
Jenna shielded her eyes against the glare of the sun and squinted into the Marsh. Her heart sankshe had no idea where the track to Aunt Zelda's cottage was. The last time she had been here with Nicko it had been covered in ice and snow during the Big Freeze and had looked nothing like it did now.
Septimus stood next to her. "I thought the Boggart would be waiting for us," he said, puzzled. "I'm sure Aunt Zelda must know we're here."
"Um, no, I don't think she does, Sep," said Jenna. "Her hearing's not so good now and she finds it hard to Listen. I'm going to send Stanley out to tell her where we are."
"Excuse me? Did I hear you correctly?" the rat asked incredulously.
"Yes, Stanley, you did hear me correctly," replied Jenna. "I want you to go to Keeper's Cottage and tell Aunt Zelda we're here."
"Sorry, Your Maj, but as I said earlier, I don't do marshes"
"If I ask you to do marshes, Stanley, you do them. Understand?"
"Er..." Stanley looked somewhat taken aback.
"And if you don't do what I ask, I'll have you dismissed from the Secret Rat Service."
"Is that clear?"
Stanley could not believe his ears. Neither could Septimus or Nicko; they had never heard Jenna sound so determined.
"Is that clear, Stanley?"
"As crystal. Absolutely." Stanley looked miserably toward the Marram Marshes. Jenna was, he thought with grudging admiration, going to be a much tougher cookie as Queen than her mother had been.
"Well off you go then," said Jenna. "Make sure you tell Aunt Zelda to send the Boggart out to the Port side with the canoe.
And be as quick as you can. Simon put a Tag on me, remember?"
They all watched the rat as he ran off along the boggy track, took a flying leap into the rough sedge grass that grew on the outer marshes and disappeared from view.
"I hope he'll be all right," said Jenna, shading her eyes and gazing in the direction Stanley had gone. She had not liked threatening Stanley but she had felt there was no other choice. Since Sleuth had Tagged her she knew it was only a matter of time before Simon found herand she longed to get to the safety of Keeper's Cottage.
"He's a good rat," said Septimus. "He'll be back with the Boggart soon, just you see."
They sat down on the side of the Causeway. Thunder nibbled contentedly at the grass and Jenna passed around the water bottle she had filled up at the Port spring on the way out. Nicko lay down and gazed at the sky, happy to spend a morning doing nothing much. Wolf Boy was restless; his hands hurt him and after a while he got to his feet and paced up and down the track to take his mind off the pain.
Jenna and Septimus were on edge and watchful, scanning the Marsh and the reed beds for any unusual movement. Every now and then an eddy of wind rustled across the reeds, a water vole ped into the water with a muffled splash or a bird suddenly called out to its mate with a mournful marsh cryand Jenna and Septimus jumped. But as midday approached and the air became warm and sultry, the wind dropped and the sounds of the animals and birds quieted. Jenna and Septimus began to feel drowsy and their eyes slowly closed. Nicko fell asleep. Even Wolf Boy stopped his pacing, lay down and rested his burning hands on the cool grass.
Above them the hot sun glowed white in the cloudless skyand far away, beyond the Marram Marshes, a dark speck appeared on the horizon.
Chapter 26 Fight & Flyte
Septimus saw it first. Something Darke crackled in the air and made the hairs on the back of his neck bristle. He sat up with a sudden jolt.
"What's the matter?" asked Jenna, waking up with a start. "Ouch,"she grimaced, as the Tag burn on her arm began to throb.
"Lookover there." Septimus pointed to the sky. "I-I don't like the look of it. It's too big for a bird."
Jenna rubbed her arm and squinted up at the bright blue expanse, following the direction of Septimus's finger. In the distance, high above the Marram Marshes, she saw a large, black, bird-like shape. "It might be a Marsh Kite..." she said uncertainly.
Septimus shook his head and stood to get a better look, shielding his eyes against the glare of the bright light. He looked pale and serious.
"Wassup?" asked Nicko, blearily opening his eyes. Wordlessly, Jenna pointed toward the approaching shape.
Wolf Boy stopped his pacing and looked. "Weird..." he muttered under his breath.
"What can you see?" asked Nicko, worried. He knew that Wolf Boy's sight was as keen as a hawk's.
"Looks like a massive, great bat ... but, no, hang on a minute ... gosh, it's going fast ... it'sno, that's not possible"
"What?" asked Septimus edgily. "What's not possible?"
"Some idiot up in the air. Flying."
"You sure, 409?"
"But that is impossibleno one can fly like thatI mean, properly, like a bird," said Jenna, with a feeling of dread.
"They did once. So it's been said." Septimus whistled under his breath.
The black speck was moving fast and soon there was no mistaking the shape of a flying man, his black cloak streaming out behind him, swooping over the Marshes, zigzagging back and forth somewhat erratically, and scanning the land below. He was homing in fast on the Tag that Sleuth had provided.
"It is Simon!" gasped Jenna, hardly able to believe what she was seeing.
"We need to hide," said Septimus. "Come on, Jen, the reed bedsquick!"
"Well, I don't see what you're all so bothered about," declared Nicko, staring up at the approaching figure. "There's four of us here and it's only Simon after alljust old smarty-pants big brother Simon. Okay, so he's learned to fly, but so what? I bet Sep can do that too. Can't you, Sep?"
"No, Nik. Not like that. That's the real thingthat's Flyte."
"But you can go up and down, can't you, Sep? That's flight."
"Only a few feet off the ground, Nik. I couldn't fly like that in a million years. I didn't think anyone could."
Jenna had taken refuge next to Thunder and was holding on tightly to his reins. Somehow she felt safer beside the solid, unflustered animal as she watched the approaching figure in the sky. Septimus stood beside her, determined to protect Jenna this time. From a secret pocket in his Apprentice belt he took his most precious Charm. It was a tiny pair of silver wings that Marcia had given him when she had first asked him to become her Apprentice. The wings sat in Septimus's right palm and glittered in the sun. Across the shining silver, four words were written in letters of pure gold: Fly Free With Me.
Septimus tried to remember what it was he had done that morning with Marcia beside the Boggart patchwhich seemed so long ago nowwhen he had first held the Charm and felt the tingle of Magyk shoot through him. He remembered that he had said the words to himself and imagined that he really was flying. That was all. Surely there was more to it than that?
"SeeI knew you'd be able to do it, Sep," said Nicko admiringly as Septimus's feet lifted a few inches off the ground.
Septimus looked down and landed with a thump.
Jenna, meanwhile, had not taken her eyes off the dark figure in the sky. He was close enough now for her to see his long straw-colored hair streaming behind him as he came down low above the reed bed, homing in on the Tag. At the last minute, when it looked as if he might hurtle headlong into the Causeway, Simon swooped up and skidded to a halt with a look of extreme concentration on his face. This was Simon's first attempt at Flyte. He had crashed three times on takeoff from the top of the Observatory roof and had narrowly avoided smashing into one of the marsh islands which had been overrun with chickens. It was nothing like as easy as Hugh Fox had told him it would be.