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Septimus Heap 4 : Queste(8)

By:Angie Sage

“See you tomorrow, then,” said Merrin, his mouth full of sausage.

“Ah. Tomorrow. Yes, I will see you tomorrow,” said Olaf gloomily. He never broke a promise.

“Good,” said Merrin, looking up from spearing his second sausage. But the room was empty. The farmers had left, and so had the tall, blond stranger.



W hile Merrin was trying to get

comfortable in a lumpy bed under the eaves of the Grateful Turbot, Stanley was burrowing into some straw in the rat hole underneath the resting place of the Castle drawbridge. The rat hole was a popular location for rats returning to the Castle, as it was a safe place to sleep while waiting for the dawn lowering of the drawbridge.

Stanley had been concerned that he might find the rat hole already full. This had happened to him a few times in the past and he had been forced to spend an uncomfortable night up a nearby tree, which was preferable to the haunted kitchens of the Grateful Turbot any day. Hoping he was not too late for a space, Stanley slipped down the bank and scooted into the well-hidden burrow. To his surprise, he realized that he was the only rat there. And then he remembered why—the RatStranglers.

Some six months ago Stanley and his wife, Dawnie, had narrowly escaped the RatStranglers. On reaching the relative safety of the Port, Dawnie had spread the increasingly dramatic story of their escape. There was nothing the rat community liked more than a bloodcurdling tale. Word had traveled fast, with the result that no rat in their right mind would now set foot in the Castle. But not all rats, thought Stanley, were as up-to-date on current affairs as he was, and he knew that the RatStranglers were long gone. Good riddance too, he thought. He made his way deep into the warm and musty rat hole until he reached the very end and burrowed down into some old straw.

The rat hole was no fun without company. Stanley was a sociable rat who liked nothing more than a good gossip with other Message Rats. He found it rather depressing to be on his own in what had once been such a convivial place. He tried nibbling at half a moldy turnip that some rat had left behind, but the thought of Dawnie and the RatStranglers had taken his appetite away. And so with a small groan Stanley, tired and aching after his long trek, stretched out his little legs, yawned and fell fast asleep. Soon the sound of rat snores were drifting across the Moat, but no one—not even the members of the Gringe household, who lived in the gatehouse opposite—heard them.

As the first streaks of dawn appeared in the sky, the tremendous thud of the drawbridge slamming down onto its resting place shook Stanley out of his straw and sent him rolling down to the mouth of the rat hole. Bleary-eyed, he peered out into the dull twilight. It was not a welcoming kind of day. The wind skittered across the slate gray surface of the Moat and large spots of rain dotted the surface of the water with widening rings. But the empty rat hole was no fun to be in either. Stanley hopped out and sniffed the early morning air. The scent of dead leaves, rain and Moat water was mixed with an unpleasant whiff of stale stew that drifted across the water from the gatehouse opposite. The rat balanced briefly on the flat take-off stone used by rats for generations and then made a well-timed leap. He landed lightly on a narrow metal shelf on the underside of the drawbridge and, careful not to look down at the deep water below, he crossed the Moat by running along the rat-run hidden beneath the massive planks of the bridge.

Safely on the other side, Stanley scrambled up the muddy bank. Keeping his head down against the biting wind, which was sending swirls of dirt into his eyes, he scurried along the track that went through the North Gate. Suddenly Stanley—to his horror—found himself running over the feet of Mrs. Gringe, the wife of the gatekeeper. Stanley was used to avoiding Gringe, who had large, heavy feet any rat could hear a mile away and a voice to match. But Mrs.

Gringe, a small worried-looking woman, was sitting quiet and still in the shelter of the gatehouse, with her little feet stuck out of the door, just asking to trip up an unsuspecting rat. Which they did. The feel of rat feet running over her own delicate toes was not something that Mrs. Gringe took lightly. In one swift second she managed to scream, grab a broom and land it with a thump on Stanley’s disappearing tail.

Stanley shot off and headed down the nearest drain, which was not, after a night’s heavy rain, the most comfortable place to be. It also turned out to be blocked.

“Rat, rat!” he heard Mrs. Gringe yell.

“Where?” growled a voice from the gatehouse.

“In the drain—get it, Gringe!”

Trapped, Stanley listened to the heavy footsteps of Gringe thudding above his head. He took a deep breath and sank below the water just in time.

Gringe knelt down and peered into the drain. “I can’t see nothin’. You sure?”

“’Course I’m sure. Saw it with me own eyes.”

“Ah. Well, I dunno.” Gringe stared at the filthy water. “You know,” he said slowly, “when you scream, I still think…I still think it’s you an’ Lucy having a shout. Happy days…”

“We weren’t always shouting,” said Mrs. Gringe with a sigh. “Well, only about that Heap boy.”

Stanley felt like his lungs were about to burst. A small bubble of air escaped from his mouth. “Ah,” said Gringe. “I reckon the little blighter’s hiding under the water.”

“You want a shovel?”

“Yeah. Pass me that big one. I’ll dig ’im out and whack ’im on the ’ead. Good practice if that Heap boy ever shows his face in ’ere.”

Stanley could hold his breath no longer. A great shower of fetid water erupted from the drain—along with a sodden rat—and Gringe reeled back, spluttering. When he finally wiped the mess from his eyes, Stanley was gone—off into the warren of alleyways and sideslips that led from the North Gate deep into the Castle.

Just outside the Palace gates, Stanley took a quick and freezing cold bath in a horse trough. A bath was not the rat’s favorite way of spending time—he couldn’t remember when he last had one—but when a rat is off to the Palace, he has to make an effort.

Back at the Grateful Turbot Tavern, Merrin, however, was not making much of an effort at all. Olaf Snorrelssen had hung around for hours waiting for Merrin to wake up, spending the entire time being berated by the tinker-woman. The boy finally staggered downstairs just after ten, having been pulled out of bed by the landlady, who wanted her room back.

Mindful of his much-regretted promise, Olaf Appeared

from the shadows. “I shall take you into the Castle, yes?” the ghost asked, hoping the boy would refuse. Unfortunately he didn’t.

“Yeah. Let’s get out of this dump,” Merrin growled.

Olaf took Merrin over the One Way Bridge, the familiar feeling of gloom that the bridge gave him settling on him like a cloud. The cloud did not lift as, dutifully, Olaf showed the boy across the drawbridge. He mediated in the argument the boy picked with the gatekeeper—who was also in a foul temper and smelled pretty bad too. Then he headed for The Ramblings, a huge warren of a place that Olaf had a real affection for. As he guided Merrin through the narrow, sometimes crowded passageways, Olaf could not shake off a strange feeling that they were being followed. But every time he glanced back he could see nothing more than the occasional fleeting shadow, which was not unusual in the shadowy, twisting alleyways. Determined to keep his word, the ghost took Merrin deep into The Ramblings. He led him to a small guesthouse where he himself had happy memories of staying many years ago.

That, Olaf mused later, was a mistake. Merrin had not liked the place. It was, he had said, a disgusting dump. When told the price of the rooms, the boy had called the owner, who was a gentle woman, a grasping old bat. Olaf decided to Appear

to the woman and apologize but that had been a mistake too. He had been flustered and got it wrong. At the sight of his sudden but incomplete Appearance the woman had screamed and slammed the door, which had Passed Through his foot and made him feel quite ill. By the time he recovered, Merrin had left. Relieved, Olaf had wandered off, unaware that he was half-Appearing

to everyone and causing havoc. By the end of the day, safely back in the ghostly haven of the Hole in the Wall Tavern, Olaf had decided that he would never Appear to anyone again. It was madness.

Stanley scuttled up one of the many back stairs of the Palace. Although he had never actually been upstairs in the Palace before, as an ex–Message Rat, Stanley knew the layout backward—he had had to learn it as part of his higher exams.

Avoiding the old ghost of a knight who was on guard—and who aimed a one-armed swipe at him with his sword—Stanley scuttled up the tapestry at the side of some big double doors. He pushed his way through the cobwebby rat-gap at the top of the wainscoting and looked down. It was a long drop on the other side. Stanley waited for a moment, gathering his courage for the jump. Far below, sitting by the fire, was Jenna Heap, Princess and heir to the Castle. Beside her lay a much-thumbed note.

Stanley could not read it from that distance, but Jenna already knew it by heart. The note read: Delivered by hand from the Wizard Tower by B. Catchpole

Received at Palace: 7:30 A.M.

From: Septimus Heap, Apprentice to Marcia Overstrand,

ExtraOrdinary Wizard