It was, people discovered, quite possible to believe both, depending on who you were talking to at the time. But everyone agreed on one thing: There was more to this young Princess than met the eye. Much more.

Stanley and Dawnie had watched the crowd run away with a great feeling of relief.

In the middle of all the excitement no one had paid them much attention as they cowered among Spit Fyre's thick spines. They sat up straight again, and Dawnie settled herself with the air of a rat much used to dragon flight. “I hope we get going soon,” she said. “I'm feeling quite famished. I rather fancy some lunch in the Port.”

Stanley sighed, but he said nothing. He watched Jenna, dripping wet, clamber back onto Spit Fyre. “All right, Your Majesty?” he asked.

Jenna did not mind Stanley calling her Your Majesty. In fact, she rather liked it, for she knew Stanley meant it affectionately. “Yes, thank you, Stanley,” she replied.

“And are you all right?”

“Never been better,” said Stanley brightly. “Lovely crisp morning, clouds clearing and off for a flight. What more could a rat want?”

“Lunch,” said Dawnie under her breath.


The Alfrun

Spit Fyre had a confident and purposeful air about him. He was flying at a leisurely pace, following the river south, toward the Port.

“I hope he's not going out to sea,” said Jenna.

“Yeah,” agreed Wolf Boy, who was feeling quite dragon-sick and could think of nothing worse right then. To take his mind off things, Wolf Boy gazed down at the silver thread of the river that wound beneath them and tried to spot Sam's Beach, where he and 412 had set off from the Forest a few months ago. Wolf Boy smiled, remembering how thrilled he had been to find his best friend again, even though 412 was nothing like his Young Army self. It wasn't just that 412's hair had grown, that he had acquired a family and a weird name to go with them, or that he was wearing a fancy Apprentice tunic and belt; it was more than that. 412 had become confident, funny and even more like ... well, even more like the best parts of 412. And now ... and now 412 was gone—maybe forever.

“Did you see that Quarantine notice on the quay?” Jenna's voice suddenly intruded on Wolf Boy's thoughts. He was glad it had.

“What notice?” he shouted above the noise of Spit Fyre's wings. Wolf Boy thought he wouldn't know one notice from another. And anyway, what was a Quarantine?

Wolf Boy imagined a horrible monster, the kind of thing that was maybe, just at that moment, chasing 412 through the Forest, or wherever he was. Wolf Boy, even with all his tracker skills, was stumped. How can you track someone who is pulled through a looking glass?

“The one about the Sickenesse!” yelled Jenna across the two rats, who were following the conversation as if watching a tennis match. “And the barricade. That means no Northern Traders this year. It's going to be a miserable MidWinter Feast without the Traders' Market!”

“Oh,” said Wolf Boy. And then yelled, “What's a Northern Trader?”

“They've got very nice boats,” ventured Stanley. "Go anywhere, those boats do.

Mind you, when I was a Message Rat you had to be careful. The Traders ran a tight rat-free policy. Had to, you see, to comply with the Market Regulations. Some of the nastiest cats I've ever encountered have been on a Trader's barge. Had a terrible run-in with an ex-Trader cat on my last Message Rat mission.“ Stanley shook his head ruefully. ”Should have realized then how things were going to turn out. Worst mission ever, that was—never met another rat who encountered anything like it. Did I tell you about Mad Jack..." And so Stanley rattled on, blissfully unaware that no one could hear him above the noise of Spit Fyre's wings, except for Dawnie, who always made a point of not listening to more than the first sentence of anything Stanley said.

“There's one down there!” Jenna shouted in reply to Wolf Boy's question. “Look!”

Wolf Boy peered at the river. Far below, he saw a long, narrow barge with a large white sail going downstream—and so did Spit Fyre. Wolf Boy felt the rhythm of the dragon's flight change and began to feel slightly less sick.

“We're going down!” Jenna yelled.

Spit Fyre slowed his wing beats and was losing height. Jenna glanced around to see where he was heading, and a feeling of excitement came over her. There was no doubt about it, Spit Fyre was homing-in on something. The Seek was working. Soon, very soon, perhaps, they would find Septimus.

“He's heading for the water!” shouted Wolf Boy.

“No, he's not. He's going for the Forest!” yelled Jenna.

Spit Fyre had wheeled around so that he was no longer above the river; he was still descending and was now heading over the Forest. Then, just as Wolf Boy and Jenna had resigned themselves to a Forest landing, the dragon began to turn back toward the river again.

“He's circling!” shouted Jenna. “I think he's trying to figure out where to land.” Jenna was half right. Spit Fyre was circling but he knew exactly where to land—he just had to work out how.

After three more circuits Spit Fyre and his passengers were flying over the tops of the Forest trees almost close enough for them to reach down and grab at the leaves.

A thin wisp of smoke drifted up from a campfire, and Wolf Boy felt a pang of homesickness for the Heap boys' camp.

Spit Fyre left the trees behind and suddenly dropped sharply down over the river.

Dawnie screamed. Right in front of them was the Trader's barge, from which came an enticing smell of frying bacon.

Jenna did not think it was possible for a fifteen-foot dragon to land on a sixty-foot boat sporting a large sail. As Spit Fyre came in low and hovered directly above the barge, her opinion was clearly shared by the boat's skipper, who was waving her arms and yelling something in a language whose words Jenna did not understand but whose meaning she certainly did.

Spit Fyre neither understood nor cared. He was heading for the flat expanse on top of the barge's cabin and he could smell breakfast. Even a dragon on a Seek needed breakfast, particularly a dragon on a Seek.

They landed with a bump. Not a big bump by dragon-landing standards, but big enough to push the Alfrun down into the water almost up to her gunwales. The barge rebounded and then rocked from side to side, sending waves washing out to the banks of the river and her skipper running angrily toward them, brandishing a long boat hook.

“Go away! Go away!” yelled Snorri Snorrelssen angrily.

Snorri had had a bad day. She had been woken at dawn by the sound of heavy footsteps tramping across her cabin roof and an insistent hammering on the hatchway. Snorri was not easily frightened but this did frighten her. Over the previous few days the Castle had become an unwelcoming place for a foreigner.

People were beginning to blame the Traders for the Sickenesse and Snorri had had numerous insults aimed her way as she had wandered around the Castle. The last few days had seen Snorri hiding in the Alfrun, waiting for the arrival of more Northern Traders. None came. Unknown to Snorri, the fishing boat blockade at Raven's Rock was already turning them away with a hail of abuse and rotten fish.

And so that morning Snorri had sailed away as the gray dawn broke, after being given ten minutes “to get out, or else.” Snorri didn't like the idea of else—whatever it was—so she got out. And now, just as she was beginning to take stock, 764 seagulls'

worth of dragon had landed on her cabin roof. It was definitely not a good day.

The Alfrun was made of sterner stuff than the rotten fishing boat in the boatyard. The deck creaked a little in protest but stayed put. The barge settled a little lower in the water, and continued her way downriver with her new cargo, which was not taking kindly to being poked in the ribs by a sharp boat hook. Beneath her feet, Jenna could feel a telltale rumble of fire starting up in Spit Fyre's fire stomach.

“No, Spit Fyre!” she yelled. “No!” Jenna scrambled down from the dragon, much to the amazement of Snorri, who had not noticed that the dragon was carrying passengers. The rumble continued to grow. Wolf Boy heard it and jumped off, and the two rats scurried up the mast and perched precariously on a narrow yardarm, roosting like an odd pair of seagulls.

Jenna grabbed Snorri's boat hook, which she was prodding at Spit Fyre. “Don't provoke him!” she shouted. “Please!” But Snorri, who was taller and stronger than Jenna, wrested the boat hook back. The rumble in the fire stomach grew louder until even Snorri noticed it. She stopped and looked puzzled.

Tags: Angie Sage Septimus Heap Fantasy