Wide-eyed, widemouthed, Merrin shook his head. Very reluctantly, he began to edge forward. Suddenly footsteps could be heard on the stairs.
“Mum!” squeaked Merrin.
Septimus panicked—events were going a little too fast. In a moment Nursie would be there and they would have lost their chance. “Grab him, quick!” he told Jim Knee.
Jim Knee grabbed Merrin’s arm.
Nursie’s voice came echoing along the corridor. “Merrin! Tell them we’re full!”
“Mum! Help!” Merrin at last managed a small yell.
Thud, thud, thud came the sound of hobnail boots on floorboards: mummy monster was coming to rescue her baby. “Oi, what’s going on? You let go, you great big bully!”
“Ouch!” yelled Jim Knee.
A large fist landed square on the jinnee’s nose, which was still very sore from hitting the bollard. To Septimus’s dismay, Jim Knee collapsed in a heap on the doorstep. Septimus leaped forward and grabbed hold of his jinnee’s collar—a greasy affair that protruded over the purple cloak.
“Get up, you idiot,” he hissed. Merrin stared at Septimus in amazement. He would never have dared call his old Master that.
A shadow fell across Septimus. He looked up and saw the substantial bulk of Nursie looming over him. “Get that horrible man away from my Merrin,” she told Septimus. Nursie took in Simon. “And you can buzz off too. Blasted Heaps. Nothing but trouble.” She turned to Merrin, who was leaning against the doorway, pale as a ghost. “Are you all right, my precious?” she asked.
Merrin nodded weakly.
It was at that moment that the door to the Port Witch Coven was wrenched open and the Witch Mother staggered out. “Master!” came the loud rasp of her voice. All on the doorstep turned in amazement to watch the Witch Mother—a round barrel of black robes smelling of cat poo—clatter precariously across to the Doll House in her tall, spiked shoes. The Witch Mother’s face, creased from sleeping in her thick white makeup (which covered her allergy to woodworm) was set in an expression of extreme humbleness. She grabbed hold of the Doll House railings and hauled herself up, heading for Simon and Jim Knee. Jim Knee stared at the Witch Mother in horror. He did not like witches.
Neither did Nursie. “And you can buzz off too, you old carcass,” Nursie informed the Witch Mother, and gave her a push. The Witch Mother wobbled precariously and grabbed hold of Simon to stop herself falling. Simon pushed her away and the Witch Mother clattered back against the railings.
Alther watched in dismay as a full-scale brawl threatened to break out on the doorstep of the Doll House. He decided to Appear, making himself as opaque as possible, for he was sure that Nursie was one of those who never normally saw ghosts.
“Madam,” he said.
“What?” demanded Nursie.
“There seems to be some kind of misunderstanding.”
“I understand perfectly. This horrible old baggage.” Nursie stabbed her finger on Jim Knee’s nose for emphasis.
“Not only kidnapped my little boy when he was a baby but now he has the nerve to come back and try it all over again. Well, I’m not having it. Not this time.”
“Madam,” said Alther. “Please let me explain. We have come to help your son; he is in grave danger from—”
“Him!” Nursie poked at Jim Knee again for emphasis.
“And he is lucky I don’t do worse than poke—”
“Ouch, ouch, ouch!”
The Witch Mother watched Nursie’s treatment of DomDaniel in amazement. A new respect for her neighbor began to dawn. “Er . . . Nursie,” she ventured.
“What now?” demanded Nursie.
“Please accept my most humble apologies for any inconvenience that the Coven may have caused you in the past and my assurances that we will do all we can in the future to assist you in any way. Any way at all . . .” The Witch Mother made an awkward bow to Nursie.
Nursie was on a roll. Her enemies were falling before her like bowling pins and she was going to make the most of it. “And you, you smelly old bat—you can buzz off an’ all,” she snapped at the Witch Mother.
The Witch Mother continued bowing frantically and began to back away. “Yes, thank you. I will indeed buzz off as you so kindly suggest.”
The motley group on the doorstep of the Doll House watched the Witch Mother totter back next door, lift the Darke Toad doorknocker and let it go with a bang. The door opened and the Witch Mother staggered inside. As soon as the door to the Port Witch Coven closed Septimus told Jim Knee to Transform. There was a flash of yellow light on Nursie’s doorstep and DomDaniel was gone; in his place stood an exotic-looking man dressed in yellow holding his red, swollen nose.
Nursie looked at her visitors quizzically. A few weeks back she had received a letter from Marcia explaining what had happened to Merrin and telling her that he was her son. Nursie, after all the years in the wilderness, searching for her son, had at last begun to think clearly. And the more she thought, the more she knew that she was never, ever, going to let Merrin out of her sight. She perused the Apprentices, the odd-looking man with the doughnut hat and the ghost. Taking the ghost to be the most reasonable of them all she addressed her comment to him.
“Is my Merrin really in danger?” she asked Alther.
“Unfortunately, madam, he is.”
“Why?” demanded Nursie—quite understandably, Alther thought.
“It relates to the Darke ring he used to wear, madam.”
“But he doesn’t have it anymore. Look. Show them, Merrin.”
Merrin meekly held up his bandaged hand.
“Indeed, madam. But the two Darke Wizards who were in the ring have escaped. This puts your son in great danger. Which is why we wish to take him to the Wizard Tower for his own protection.”
Nursie was suspicious. “Why do you care about him all of a sudden? You never did before.”
“It is to do with the ring, madam,” said Alther, who tried to never tell a lie.
Nursie narrowed her eyes and looked at Alther. “If you wasn’t such a nice, honest-looking gentleman, I’d say you was thinking of using my Merrin as bait,” she said.
“Bait!” gasped Alther.
“To get the ring back.”
“Oh. Goodness me!”
“Near the mark, am I?” asked Nursie.
“No, no!” Alther rapidly abandoned his principles for the greater good. “We would not dream of doing such a thing. Oh, dear me, no.”
“And he’ll be safe in the Castle?”
“As safe as we can make him, madam.”
“Very well. On one condition,” said Nursie.
“Yes, madam. And what would that be?”
“I will take him myself. I am not letting my Merrin out of my sight ever again.”
Alther knew when to give in. Short of abducting Merrin by force—and with Nursie present he didn’t give much for their chances—it was the best they were going get.
“Very well, madam. I beg the honor of escorting you.”
“To make sure we don’t escape?” asked Nursie.
“No, madam, not at all. To try to protect you from the Darke Wizards.” And this time, Alther did indeed speak the truth.
They were just in time to catch the late Barge to the Castle. Merrin and Nursie joined the Barge’s only passengers—two excitable women who were planning to join a Magyk tour of the Castle the following morning. They took their seats under cover and wrapped themselves in the rough barge blankets provided for nighttime journeys. Alther hovered above the barge, watching for any signs of trouble. But despite the wind and the spattering of rain that was beginning to fall, all was quiet. It seemed as though the whole Port had gone early to bed.
Septimus, Simon and Jim Knee watched the barge edge away from the Quay and head out into the choppy waters of the river. They saw the wind catch its huge white sail and send it plowing rapidly through the spray. Very soon it was gone into the night, heading upriver to the Castle.
“It won’t take them long with this wind,” said Simon. “It will blow them straight there.”