Catherine Smith

Midnight at the Wizard Tower

Janet settled herself down on a rug by the fire, and soon two steaming mugs of hot milk appeared. Marissa sat down beside her. Suddenly Janet couldn't think of anything at all, except that her feet were cold, but she was too embarrassed to take her boots off.

"Best get those boots off," said Marissa. "They're soaking."

Janet unlaced her boots and pulled them off.

"Look at your socks. What a state," Marissa tutted.

Janet went red. Her socks had previously belonged to Nicko, and before that they had been Edd's. They were mostly darns and far too big for her. Janet wiggled her toes by the fire and dried her feet.

"Would you like some new socks?" asked Marissa.

Janet nodded shyly. A pair of thick, warm socks appeared on her feet.

"We'll keep the old ones though," said Marissa.

"Clean," she told them.

"Fold."

The socks did what they were told; they shook off the dirt, which landed in a sticky pile on the hearth, then they neatly folded themselves up and lay down by the fire next to Janet. She smiled. She was glad Marissa hadn't called her mother’s best darning rubbish.

The midwinter afternoon drew on, and the light began to fade. Janet was curled up by the fire, looking at one of Marissa 's picture books when there was a frantic banging on the door.

"Come on, Marissa. Open the door. It's me!" came an impatient voice from outside.

"It's Dad!" yelled Janet.

"Sh..." said Marissa. "It might not be."

"For goodness' sake, open the door, will you?" said the impatient voice.

Marissa did a quick Translucent. Sure enough, to her irritation, outside the door stood Nicko and Silas. But that wasn't all. Sitting next to them, with its tongue lolling out and drool dribbling down its fur, was the wolf, wearing a spotted neckerchief. Marcia had no choice but to let them in.

"Open!" Marissa abruptly told the door.

"Hello, Jan." Nicko grinned. He stepped carefully onto Marissa's fine silk carpet, closely followed by Silas and the wolf, whose madly wagging tail swept Marissa 's treasured collection of Fragile-Faerie pots crashing to the floor.

"Nicko!" yelled Janet. It felt like months since she had seen him. "Where's Mum. Is she all right?"

"She's fine," said Silas. "She's gone to Galen's with the boys. Nicko and I just came by to give you this." Silas fished around in his deep pockets. "Hang on," he said. "It's here somewhere."

"Are you mad?" Marissa demanded. "What do you think you are doing, coming here? And get that wretched wolf away from me." The wolf was busy dribbling over Marissa’s precious shoes.

"He's not a wolf," Silas told her. "He's an Abyssinian wolfhound descended from the Moghul Maghi wolfhounds. And his name is Maximillian. Although, he might allow you to call him Maxie for short. If you're nice to him."

"Nice!" spluttered Marissa, almost speechless.

"Thought we might stay over," Silas carried on, tipping out the contents of a small grubby sack over Marissa 's ebony and jade Ouija table and sifting through them. "It's too dark now to go into the Forest."

"Stay? Here?"

"Dad! Look at my socks, Dad," said Janet, wiggling her toes in the air.

"Mm, very nice, poppet," said Silas, still fishing around in his pockets. "Now where did I put it? I know I brought it with me..."

"Do you like my socks, Nicko?"

"Very purple," said Nicko.

"I'm frozen." Janet led Nicko to the fire.

"Good old Dad. Except," she said thoughtfully, "I suppose he's not my dad. And you're not my brother…"

"Don't be daft. 'Course we are," said Nicko gruffly. "Nothing can change that. Silly Princess."

"Yes, I suppose," said Janet.

"Yes, of course," said Nicko.

Silas had overheard the conversation. "I'll always be your dad, and Mum will always be your mum. It's just you have a first mum as well."

"Was she really a Queen?" asked Janet.

"Yes. The Queen. Our Queen. Before we had these Custodians here." Silas looked thoughtful and then his expression cleared as he remembered something and took off his thick woolen hat. There it was, in his hat pocket. Of course.

"Found it!" Silas said triumphantly. "Your birthday present. Happy birthday, poppet."

He gave Janet the present she had left behind. It was small and surprisingly heavy for its size. Janet tore off the colored paper and held a little blue drawstring bag in her hand. She carefully pulled open the strings, holding her breath with excitement. It was small and quite heavy for its size.

"Oh," she said, not able to keep the disappointment out of her voice. "It's a pebble. But it's a really nice pebble, Dad. Thanks." She picked out the smooth green stone and put it in the palm of her hand. Silas lifted her on his lap and took the stone.

“It’s not a pebble,” he explained. “It’s a Locked Box. You’re supposed to rub it and find a different stone there every day, depending on your mood." Meanwhile... Maxie was busy chewing the wrapping paper and dribbling down Nicko's neck.

"Hey, get off, you dribble-bucket! Go on, lie down," said Nicko, trying to push Maxie onto the floor. But the wolfhound wouldn't lie down. He was staring at a large picture on the wall of Marissa in her Apprenticeship Graduation gown. Maxie began to whine softly. Nicko patted Maxie.

"Scary picture, hey?" he whispered to the dog who wagged his tail half-heartedly. The portrait was looking agitated. "That Linda woman. She's told them where you've gone. They're coming here. They're sending the Assassin."

"Oh, no," said Marissa. "I'll Charm-Lock the main doors."

"Too late," it gasped. "She's already in."

"But how?"

"Someone left the door open," said the P-M.

"Silas, you idiot!" snapped Marissa.

"Right," said Silas making for the door. "We'll be off, then. And I'll take Janet with me. She's obviously not safe with you, Marissa."

"What?" squeaked Marissa indignantly. "She's not safe anywhere, you ****!"

"Don't you call me a ****," spluttered Silas. "I am just as intelligent as you, Marissa. Just because I am only an Ordinary - "

"Stop it!" shouted P-M. "This is not the time to argue. For God’s sake, she's coming up the stairs."

Shocked, everyone stopped and listened. All was quiet. Far too quiet. Except for the whisper of the silver stairs steadily turning as they brought a passenger slowly up through the Wizard Tower right to the very top, to Marissa’s purple door. Janet looked scared. Nicko put his arm around her.

"I'll keep you safe, Jan," he said. "You'll be all right with me."

Suddenly Maxie put his ears back and gave a bloodcurdling howl as the Wizard Tower's clock struck Midnight.

Crash! The door burst open.