“Please hurry,” Jenna whispered urgently.
“My powers are not what they were,” said a flustered Sir Hereward. “This lock doth not turn easily.”
“Sir Hereward, let me try something,” said Jenna. Wishing that she had listened more to the droning of Jillie Djinn, Jenna took the key to the Queen's Room off her belt.
With chilled and trembling fingers that were about as much use as a package of frozen sausages, she fumbled and dropped it. It lay on the frosty grass, glinting gold and emerald in the moonlight. Septimus snatched it up, pushed it into the lock and turned it, and the next moment they were all tumbling inside. Septimus locked the door behind them and they stood listening to the hollow thud of footsteps running beneath the cedar trees, and shaking the ground beneath them.
Suddenly Hugo grabbed hold of Septimus's arm—hard.
Two green eyes glinted in the darkness, and a long, low growl began to fill the summer house.
“Ullr?” whispered Jenna into the dark. But then she remembered where she was.
How could it be Ullr?
Out of the dark came a voice that Jenna knew. “Kalmm, Ullr. Kalmm,” said Snorri, breathless. But Ullr was not calm. The big cat, spooked by the strange smells and sounds of this different Time, had been startled by the shriek of a late-night kitchen maid and had taken off down a warren of passages. Snorri had, to her relief, just caught up with him. Now she held the panther back and stroked his neck where the fur had risen along with his growl.
“It's okay, Sep,” Jenna whispered. “It's only Snorri and the NightUllr.”
Septimus did not understand a word of what Jenna said, but if a growling panther did not bother Jenna, then he wasn't going to let it bother him either. There were other things to worry about just then, like the harsh voice of the new Steward saying excitedly, “The trail is clear. Our quarry awaits us in the Queen's summer house, men.”
A sharp rattling on the door handle was followed by an exclamation, “ 'Tis locked and barred, my lord Steward.”
“Then batter it down, thou Namby-Pamby Mither of Mischance— batter it down!”
A great crash resounded against the flimsy wooden door and the summer house shook. Sir Hereward brandished his sword at the door and declared, “Fear not, they shall not pass.” Jenna glanced in panic at Septimus—the Steward's search party would not even notice Sir Hereward; he would be Passed Through as if he wasn't there.
“We can escape to the kitchens from here,” said Snorri quickly, “but they will follow. I have an idea. Jenna, give me your cloak, please.” Any other time Jenna would have been reluctant to give up her beautiful cloak, but as another crash sounded against the door and a thin panel splintered behind her, she tore off the cloak and thrust it into Snorri's hands. Jenna could hardly bear to look as Snorri ripped the cloak from end to end, stamped it into the dirt of the summer house floor and then gave it to Ullr, saying, “Take, Ullr.” The panther took Jenna's mangled cloak in his mouth and clamped it between his great white incisors.
“Stay, Ullr. Guard.” Ullr obeyed. The great panther stood by the door, his green eyes flashing as another blow sent a shower of dry timber splintering over his broad muscled back.
“Come,” whispered Snorri, beckoning to Jenna, Septimus, Hugo and Sir Hereward.
Snorri disappeared into the gloom but the shine of the moonlight on her white-blond hair made it easy to follow her, and soon they were squeezing down a steep flight of spiral stone steps. As they fled, they heard the summer house door finally collapse under the weight of the blows. Then came Ullr's threatening rumble of a growl, followed by a piercing shriek of terror from the Namby-Pamby Mither of Mischance, who had the mischance to be the first through the door.
“Get thee back inside,” came the Steward's harsh voice.
“No, no, I pray you, sire. Upon my life I dare not.”
“Then, fool, thou art truly cursed, for thou hast no life left to dare upon, unless thee enter and bring out the Princess.”
“No— no, sire, I beg you! ”
“Stand aside, fool. I shall show thee how a man should be—”
At that, a snarl such as no one—not even Snorri—had ever heard from Ullr before filled the narrow stairwell and sent shivers down their spines. A terrified yell pierced the air, and the sound of thudding footsteps could be heard overhead as the Steward's search party ran away, leaving the Steward to show the NightUllr all on his own how a man should be.
The search party arrived back at the Ballroom in disarray, and the few stragglers who had stayed behind to finish their—and their neighbors'—ducklings heard the terrible story of how Princess Esmeralda had been eaten alive by the Black Fiend. No one knew what had become of the new Steward, although they all feared (and hoped—for it greatly improved the story) the worst.
With the NightUllr guarding the summer house and possibly eating the Steward (although no one wanted to think about that), Septimus, Jenna, Hugo and Snorri emerged at the bottom of the flight of spiral steps and bumped straight into someone.
“Nik!” Septimus yelled in amazement.
At the sound of Septimus's voice, Nicko nearly dropped his candle. A flicker of puzzlement briefly clouded his features as he took in the subtle changes that one hundred and sixty-nine days marooned in a foreign Time had wrought upon Septimus, but it soon cleared, for Nicko could see that underneath the matted hair and the skinny, slightly taller frame, it was the same Septimus, and not only that—behind him was Jenna.
“Come quick,” said Snorri, “they may soon send others to defeat Ullr. He will not be able to hold them back forever. We must be gone.” Snorri took the candle from Nicko and strode off purposefully. They followed Snorri and the flickering light from her candle along the thoroughfare of the lower kitchens, which was deserted, apart from three tired serving girls disappearing in the distance. The kitchens were filled with the familiar, and to Jenna and Septimus repulsive, smells of the banquet.
Glancing about them to check for inquisitive servants, they crept on. They were lucky, these were the few quiet hours of the night when no one but the Palace baker was at work in the kitchens—and he was safely far away on the upper floor.
Jenna knew where they were heading. Not far ahead, she could see the recess that hid the UnderCooks' coat cupboard. She squeezed Septimus's hand and said, “We'll be home soon, Sep—isn't that great?”
“But how?” asked Septimus, puzzled.
Behind him Nicko held up the candle and their shadows were thrown across the old coat cupboard. “That's how,” he said. “Don't you recognize it?”
“Where you came in, dillop.”
Septimus shook his head. "But this isn't where I came in. I came into the Alchemists'
Nicko didn't see why Septimus was being so fussy. “Oh, it doesn't matter, Sep. Let's just go back this way, okay? Getting home is what counts.”
Septimus said nothing. He did not see how he could possibly get back home through an old cupboard. At the mention of home, Hugo began to snuffle. Septimus crouched down beside the boy. “What is it, Hugo?” he asked.
Hugo rubbed his tired, sore eyes. “I ... I want to go home,” he mumbled. “See Sally.”
“My dog. See Sally.”
“All right, Hugo. Don't worry, I'll take you home.”
“Sep!” exclaimed Jenna, horrified. "You can't. You've got to come back with us.
Now. We've got to go before someone catches us."
“But, Jen ... we can't just leave Hugo here on his own.”
Sir Hereward coughed politely. “Princess Jenna. I trust you will allow me to escort the boy back to his household.”
“Oh, Sir Hereward,” said Jenna, “would you?”
The knight bowed. “It will be an honor, Princess Jenna.” The knight extended a rusty-gloved hand to Hugo, who took it and held on tightly to the thin air. “I shall take my leave, fair Princess,” said Sir Hereward, bowing low. “Fare thee well, for I shall not see thee again.”
“Oh, but you will, Sir Hereward. I will see you tonight and tell you all about it.”
“I trust not, Princess, for I think you will not be safe here tonight. I wish you and your brave companions Good Speed and a Safe Homecoming. Come, Hugo.” With that the ghost walked out the door, Hugo trotting beside him.