What Merrin did not see, partly because it was daylight and Things do not show up well in bright light—but mainly because he was not expecting to see it—was the Thing. It flowed along the hedgerows some distance behind him, like a stream of dirty water.

Another thing that Merrin did not see as he jogged along, hugging the now pleasantly hot bread, was a brown rat sitting in the grass by the side of the road. But the rat saw Merrin well enough. Stanley, ex–Message Rat, ex–Secret Service Rat, had no intention of getting anywhere near Merrin, particularly near his right boot. But Stanley’s old Secret Service habits died hard and he was curious to know where Merrin was going. The boy was, in Stanley’s opinion, trouble.

Stanley had just spent a couple of weeks with Humphrey, his old Message Rat Service boss, who had fled the Castle some six months ago after the RatStranglers had formed. Although Humphrey was enjoying his retirement in an apple loft on a small cider farm and had no intention of returning, he had tried to persuade Stanley to start up the Message Rat Service again. Stanley had promised to think about it.

Stanley watched Merrin stop at a crossroads. The boy stared at the sign-stones for a few seconds and then jauntily set off in the direction of the Castle. The rat watched Merrin stride down the road. With people like that heading for the Castle, he thought, a Message Rat Service might well be needed. He made a pact with himself: he would follow Merrin and if the boy did indeed go to the Castle, Stanley would take Humphrey’s advice.

And so it was that two very different creatures followed Merrin as he made his way along the winding tracks that led through the Farmlands. Buoyed by his newfound freedom, Merrin made fast progress, and as night began to fall he saw the Castle in the distance. Weary now, he trudged past the last farm before the river. He looked longingly at the lit candles in the farmhouse windows and at a family sitting down to supper, but he kept going, following the track through a small wood. One sharp bend later Merrin suddenly found himself out of the trees and on the riverbank. Amazed, he threw himself down on the grass and stared. He had never seen anything like it in his life.

On the other side of the wide, slow river, a great wall of lights reared up into the night sky, casting their sparkling reflections in the dark waters of the river. Behind the lights the shadowy bulk of the Castle could be seen. Merrin knew there were thousands of people inside, each one belonging to one of the lights, all living their lives and going about their business without a thought for a boy sitting on the opposite bank. Suddenly Merrin felt very small and alone.

Merrin stared at the lights, resisting the urge to count them—he was much given to counting things—and soon his eyes began to pick out more details and make sense of the shapes behind them. He saw the high walls of The Ramblings, which seemed to stretch along the river for miles. And, in the silence of the riverbank, he heard the sound of chatter and laughter drifting across the water. He saw the deserted pontoons of the old docks and the outlines of a few rotting ships.

And then as he looked, eyes wide as an owl’s, Merrin picked out a ladder of lights that flickered purple and gold and reached impossibly high into the sky. At the top of the ladder was a golden pyramid, glowing with an eerie purple light and illuminating the underside of a bank of low-lying clouds.

A shiver ran through Merrin. He knew what that was—the Wizard Tower, a place where he had once spent an unhappy few months with his old master, DomDaniel. It was also, he thought with a sudden rush of anger, where that so-called Septimus Heap boy was right now, no doubt sitting by a warm fire, having supper and talking Wizard stuff and being listened to, as if what he said mattered. But not, thought Merrin, for very much longer. He ran his forefinger over the cold surface of the Two-Faced Ring that was wrapped—still a little too tightly—around his left thumb, and smiled.

Abruptly, Merrin jumped up from the damp grass and set off at top speed along the track. He knew that he would have to wait until dawn when the drawbridge was lowered to get into the Castle, and he needed somewhere to spend the night.

The track took him away from the riverbank and through some muddy fields bounded by high hedges. As he emerged from the last field Merrin saw the lights of the Grateful Turbot Tavern appear. In his pocket his hand closed around the bag of Simon’s secret stash of money that he had taken. Time, he thought, to spend some of my hard-earned cash.

Stanley watched Merrin push open the door to the tavern and walk into the warm, welcoming glow. There was no doubt about it; Merrin was headed for the Castle. The Grateful Turbot had a well-deserved reputation for being haunted. No one would choose to stay there unless they were waiting for the Castle drawbridge to be lowered the next morning.

As the rat scuttled off, the Thing

loped up to the tavern door. But it did not venture inside. It sank into a dark corner of the front porch and huddled up on one of the benches that ran along the side with its sack of bones to keep it company through the night. The Thing did not exactly wear a look of contentment on its haggard face, but it was not displeased. If anyone had ever thought to ask a Thing

what its idea of a fun night out would be—which strangely enough no one ever had—sitting outside a haunted tavern with a bag of Necromancer’s bones for company would probably have been at the top of the list.

5

THE GRATEFUL TURBOT

M errin did not know how

old he was. He was in fact nearing his thirteenth birthday, but the guarded expression in his eyes made him look much older. Recently he had grown tall, and with the confidence of his new independence, plus the knowledge that he had enough money for many days to come, he strode into the Grateful Turbot Tavern. Making his voice as gruff as possible, he ordered supper and asked for a room for the night.

Some minutes later, Merrin was sitting by a crackling log fire with a tankard of the dark Turbot special on the table in front of him. He wished he had been brave enough to ask for lemonade. It was a quiet Sunday evening at the tavern and, apart from a couple of farmers haggling over the price of a cow, Merrin thought he had the place to himself. But what Merrin could not see, because he was not the kind of boy ghosts would normally choose to Appear to, was that the Grateful Turbot Tavern was stuffed full of ghosts. So much so that when Merrin had made his way from the bar to the fire he had inadvertently Passed Through

half a dozen ghosts before they had had the chance to get out of his way, causing much ghostly grumbling.

As Merrin took what he thought was an unoccupied seat by the fire he was in fact surrounded by ghosts—who liked to stand by a blazing fire on a dark night as much as any Living person.

Next to Merrin were three fishermen, one of whom was somewhat grumpy, having been in the seat Merrin had just taken. Some fifty years ago, the fishermen had drowned right outside the tavern after an argument over who had caught the biggest fish, and they were still arguing. Sitting across the table from Merrin was an ancient and very faded tinker-woman endlessly counting her pennies. The tinker had died of old age at that very table and still did not understand that she was dead. Clustered around the fire was a party of six knights killed in a long-forgotten battle for the One Way Bridge. They were chatting with a couple of dairymaids who, only a few years back, had gotten lost in a blizzard on their way home from the market and had frozen during the night. Perched on the edge of Merrin’s table was a Princess who had run away to meet her sweetheart, sheltered under a tree in a sudden thunderstorm and been struck by lightning. She studied Merrin with a mournful gaze until he shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He looked, thought the Princess, a little like her long-lost love—but only a little.

There was, not surprisingly, a bit of an atmosphere in the Grateful Turbot—which was why it was generally frequented only by those who were too late to get into the Castle and needed a bed for the night or by Northern Traders who were banned from most of the Castle taverns. And the first ghost that Merrin ever saw—although he never realized it—was the ghost of one of these Northern Traders.

Sitting in the shadows, some way back from the gathering by the fire, was the ghost of Olaf Snorrelssen, a Northern Trader who had once fallen asleep on the One Way Bridge and never woken again. Olaf sat in his shadowy corner and watched Merrin from across the room. There was something about the boy that caught his eye—here was a fellow traveler, a stranger in a foreign land as Olaf himself had so often been. In a sudden rush of fellow-feeling Olaf decided to make his first Appearance to a Living person.

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