“Though there may be colloid of gold suspended within, there is no gold upon the phial, Mama,” said Marcellus, stung by Etheldredda's sarcastic tone.

Etheldredda lost patience. Like a rat up a drainpipe, she darted across the Chamber and snatched up the phial. “I shall have this Potion, Marcellus, before thee defile it with the venom of the black snake. You shall deny me not.”

“No, Mama!” Marcellus yelled, horrified at seeing his precious Tincture about to disappear into Etheldredda's gaping mouth. “It is not ready. Who knoweth what it may do!”

But Etheldredda was not about to break the habit of a life-time and listen to her son.

She did not heed the warning in his words. She tipped the sticky contents of the phial into her mouth and choked in disgust, then she doubled up in pain, coughing and retching. The stuff came back up from her stomach and swilled around her mouth, coating her teeth as if with blue tar. Determined, Etheldredda swallowed it again and straightened up, leaning against the bench, pale and weak as a sheet left too long in the bleach by a careless laundress. Unknowing of the effect the Tincture had had on its mistress, the Aie-Aie jumped onto the bench and drained the remaining drops. It licked its lips and ran a long fingernail around the inside of the phial to scrape out the last smears of slime.

Jenna, Septimus, Nicko and Marcellus Pye stared, aghast.

“Thou shouldst not have done that, Mama,” Marcellus said quietly.

Etheldredda swayed slightly, took a deep breath and regained her composure, though she still had sticky blue teeth. “I will not be denied, Marcellus,” she said as the Tincture began to enter her bloodstream and an exhilarating feeling of power whizzed through her veins. “For I shall rule this Castle forever. It is my right and duty. No other Queen shall take my place.”

“Thou must not forget thy daughter, Esmeralda, Mama,” muttered Marcellus. “For she must take thy place when the Time Is Right.”

Fixing Jenna with a poisonous glare, Etheldredda declared, “Esmeralda shall never have my crown! Never, never, never.” With the power of the unfinished Tincture now infusing her whole body, Etheldredda felt invincible. The Chamber began to distort before her eyes, her mealy-mouthed son grew smaller and the tedious Esmeralda became nothing more than unfinished business.

Jenna, transfixed by the sight of her ghastly great-great (and then some)-grandmother's blue teeth and staring eyes, did not react quickly enough when Etheldredda's hand suddenly snaked out and grabbed her arm.

“Let go!” she yelled, twisting away from the vise but succeeding only in hurting her arm even more. The Aie-Aie threw down the phial, leaped onto Etheldredda's skirts and then wrapped its snake-tail around Jenna's neck—once, twice, then three times, until she could barely breathe.

Septimus and Nick rushed to help Jenna but were swatted away by Etheldredda like a couple of irritating flies.

As Etheldredda and the Aie-Aie disappeared into the Labyrinth, dragging Jenna in their wake, Marcellus sank to his knees in despair at the loss of his Tincture, unseeing as Septimus and Nicko picked themselves up and hurtled into the Labyrinth in pursuit of Jenna.

“We'll get her, Nik,” shouted Septimus. “She can't have gotten very far. Can't be more than just around the next bend.”

But Jenna wasn't. Nicko and Septimus raced through the endless blue haze of the passageways and found only emptiness.

42

The River

“Thou shalt come with your mama, Esmeralda!” Queen Etheldredda yelled as she pulled Jenna into a small unlit tunnel just off the Labyrinth. “Thou shalt come with her, for we have a much-delayed trip to take, do we not?”

With the Aie-Aie's tail curled so tightly around her neck that she barely had breath enough to walk, Jenna could not escape Etheldredda's grip. She was being dragged deeper and deeper into the darkness of the tunnel. The floor beneath Jenna's feet was slippery, and a cold wind blew up through the tunnel, carrying with it the dank smell of river water. The combination of Etheldredda's potion-powered strength and the downward slope of the passage, which was covered in a thin coating of ice, meant that Jenna was almost skating along in Etheldredda's wake.

The darkness did not seem to bother Etheldredda. The Queen knew her way, for it was a route she often took to check up on her son, and she sped along the tunnel like a speed skater on a mission. After what felt like a lifetime, but was no more than fifteen minutes, Jenna thought she could see pale moonlight—or was it the beginnings of dawn?—shining on the icy tunnel floor and beyond that, the blackness of the river. A few moments later, she, Etheldredda and the Aie-Aie were out in the open air, on a small landing platform a few hundred yards upriver from the South Gate. The river swept by in front of them, swift, dark and freezing cold. Jenna pulled back from the water. The landing stage was icy, and she knew it would take only a moment for Etheldredda to push her in.

“Thou art safe for now, Esmeralda,” hissed the Queen, keeping her grip on Jenna tight. “I wouldst not have some footman find thee a-bobbing by the Palace on the outflow of the tide this morn. Besides, I wish to show thee one of the wonders of our land: the bottomless Whirlpool of Bleak Creek. I shall call our barge and we shall make haste forthwith, for your mama is not so cruel as to make thee tarry here a moment longer when such delight awaits.” With that, Queen Etheldredda drew out a golden whistle from a pocket deep in her rustling silk skins and blew three short, shrill notes. The piercing noise cut through the icy air and carried all the way to the Palace landing stage, where it woke the bargee, who had been sleeping fitfully in his freezing bunk on board the Royal Barge, his porthole wide open just in case of such a summons.

But it was not only the Royal bargee that the whistle summoned. In the shadows of the landing stage, the NightUllr was crouching, waiting for his mistress to find him.

As Etheldredda's whistle shrieked, so did Ullr's ears hurt. Almost deafened with pain, the panther sprang out of the night and knocked the whistle from Etheldredda's lips.

The Queen screamed out in surprise. The Aie-Aie unwound its tail from Jenna's neck and leaped to its mistress's aid, leaving Jenna free to wrench herself from the Queen's clutches and throw herself clear of the edge of the water.

As Etheldredda slipped on the icy landing stage, her crown toppled from her head and she fell into the river with a surprisingly small, neat splash. There were no more screams, no more shrieks, and in a moment she had disappeared below the water, with nothing but a few black bubbles rising to the surface to show where she had fallen. The Aie-Aie, chattering with fear, skittered away into the darkness, and the last Jenna heard of it was a few stones dislodged from the wall as it climbed to freedom.

Very carefully, Jenna crept to the edge of the landing stage and peered into the water's depths. It seemed impossible that Queen Etheldredda could disappear so thoroughly and with such little fuss. She looked behind to check that Etheldredda was not creeping up and about to push her in, but there was nothing there. She was safe. As the sun rose above a small line of pink clouds on the low horizon above the Farmlands, Jenna yawned—tired, cold and suddenly remembering that, even though she was safe from the murderous Etheldredda, she was still five hundred years away from home.

“Komme, Ullr,” said Jenna as she had heard Snorri do. She turned away from the sunrise, and to her surprise there was no sign of the panther anywhere. Thinking that he must have padded back up the tunnel, Jenna turned wearily into the tunnel entrance to retrace her steps back to the Chamber, for where else could she go?

“Meow ... meow.” A strange orange cat with a black-tipped tail rubbed itself against Jenna's leg.

“Hello, puss,” said Jenna, bending down to stroke the cat. “How did you get here?”

“Meow.” The cat seemed a little impatient with her. “Meow.”

And then Jenna remembered. “Ullr,” she murmured.

“Meow,” responded Ullr. The orange cat set off back up the dark and slippery tunnel.

Tired and cold, Jenna trudged after him.

As Jenna left the landing stage, the Royal Barge—with eight sleepy oarsmen creaking at their places and the frozen bargee, teeth chattering and hand sticking to the ice on the tiller—rounded the bend. The barge was a beautiful sight in the winter's dawn: candles hastily lit and burning bright at the portholes, the Royal Red canopy moving gently with the motion of the barge and the swirls of golden paintwork glinting in the long, low rays of the rising winter sun. Inside the cabin, a table was set with a jug of hot mulled wine and a plate of savory biscuits; around the table were comfortable seats covered in Royal Red rugs and cushions. In the middle of the cabin, a small stove was glowing with a blaze of seasoned apple logs and aromatic herbs, which filled the cabin with a warming and welcoming fragrance.

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