belinda murrell
belinda murrell - author
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The Voyage of the Owl

Chapter One ~
 

Sniffer prowled down the staircase of the palace. Behind him tramped twelve Sedah guards, dressed all in black. The sharp tips of their cutlasses glinted wickedly in the light of the candles burning in the wall sconces.

Down one, two, three flights of stairs. They marched through the dim corridors. Maid servants and lackeys scuttled out of their way, staring nervously after the threatening black shadows of the Sedah soldiers.

Sniffer was enjoying this. He felt a rush of adrenalin. So close now. Any moment those brats would be his.

Sniffer threw open the thick, iron-hinged door that led to the kitchens. Apprentices and scullery maids melted away. The heat in the kitchens was stifling. A large joint of beef sizzled on a spit over a huge fire. A second fireplace was banked with hot coals for warming pots of sauces and stews.

The servants huddled wide-eyed against the walls. The kitchen was filled with the mouth-watering scents of roasting meat, pungent herbs and baking bread, but underlying it all was the salty smell of fear.

‘What's going on?' demanded the head chef, as she continued stirring a delicate sauce in a large copper pot. Cookie was a well-rounded woman, fierce and loyal, and known to be a tyrant in her domain.

Sniffer ignored her and the other staff. ‘The entrance to the dumbwaiter is somewhere down here,' he barked, enjoying his newfound authority. ‘Those children must be here - and one of them is the princess. The captain's orders are not to harm her. Search carefully and leave no pot unturned.'

The Sedah soldiers nodded and started to search, knocking over pots, pans, sacks and crates in their thoroughness.

‘What's all this chaos in my kitchen?' cried
Cookie, her face damp and pink with steam and sweat. ‘His lordship will be furious if his luncheon is ruined!'

Sniffer ignored her, snuffling quietly to himself as he examined the walls of the kitchen. The servants hurriedly moved away, fear blanching their faces.

‘What's in here?' demanded Sniffer, rattling a door that was padlocked shut.

‘That's my pantry,' Cookie replied, lifting the heavy pan of sauce away from the coals with her work-worn hands, nicked with dozens of fine scars.

‘Open it then,' said Sniffer.

‘No-one goes in there but me,' protested Cookie. ‘Otherwise my best ingredients disappear.'
Sniffer's eyes lit up. ‘Open it,' he demanded.

Cookie huffed and puffed as she fumbled through the heavy ring of keys that hung at her waist. It took her a few minutes to find the thick iron key that fitted the lock. Sniffer snuffled impatiently. Finally Cookie found the right key and clicked open the lock. The door swung open.

Inside was a small room lined with shelves groaning with jars, bottles and boxes. Sniffer impatiently shoved past Cookie and into the room. At the far end was a sliding door, set halfway up the wall. Sniffer raced to this and lifted it up. Inside was
a dark chimney-like space that stretched up into the blackness.

Hanging down in the space were two thick, worn ropes. Sniffer hauled on the ropes and down shot the small shelf from the nursery four floors above. Sniffer snorted in satisfaction. He whirled to interrogate Cookie, who was standing by the door jamb, her hands on her ample hips.

‘Someone has been in this pantry this morning. Where are they now?' demanded Sniffer, hauling himself up tall to intimidate the cook.

‘That's what I'd like to know,' cried Cookie in a fury. ‘Look! Someone has taken my egg and bacon pie, a roast chicken, lemon tarts, a jug of custard and a jug of lemonade that I had prepared for his lordship's luncheon. I leave my pantry unlocked for half an hour while I am out picking herbs and one of your thieving guards comes in here and steals all my hard work,' Cookie fumed. ‘I am going straight to Lord Lazlac to complain. I'll teach your lazy thieving soldiers to sneak in here and steal my food.'

With this Cookie descended upon the unfor¬tunate Sniffer, berating him with voice and apron. Sniffer ducked for cover. His quick eyes noticed the evidence of a surreptitious feast - crumbs of pastry, a dish of chicken bones sucked clean, empty jugs
and a crumpled cloth on the floor. But no sign of what he expected to find - four irritating, grubby children and a large dog.

Sniffer scurried out from under Cookie's apron back into the kitchen. The twelve Sedah guards looked at him expectantly. He stared back at them. What now? Where were those children?

‘Search the gardens,' Sniffer muttered. ‘Search the rooms above the kitchens on every floor. Search every room. Don't let anyone leave the palace without checking their credentials. Report back here to me.'

The soldiers nodded and left, a few heading out into the kitchen garden, the rest heading back through the kitchen door to search the palace. Cookie muttered ferociously under her breath about thieving soldiers and stolen pies.

Sniffer turned to the group of frightened servants huddling near the fire. He snuffled over to a girl with long curly hair. He yanked out a strand of her hair. The girl yelped in shock.

Sniffer pulled out a long golden hair from his pocket and held it up to the window to compare the colour. He snarled in disappointment. It was not the same hair. He threw the offending strand onto the fire where it sizzled, curled and burnt, giving out an acrid stench.

Sniffer peered and prodded at the younger servants, checking their foot size, hair colour and height. None of them matched the statistics he had carefully gathered in his memory. Cookie watched from the pantry doorway.

‘Well,' she huffed in annoyance. ‘I suppose I had better go and explain to his lordship that luncheon will be delayed and not quite what he had ordered.' She swept out of the kitchen, barking over her shoulder, ‘The rest of you, get on with preparing those vegetables, and for the Moon Goddess's sake, don't let that joint burn or you'll be looking for a new job scrubbing the sewers!'

Sniffer ignored this exit. He sniffed at a young pot boy who was smudged with ashes from the fire, then snuffled over to a young girl with long chestnut hair who was sobbing into her apron.

the kitchen door, Cookie picked up her skirts and ran as fast as her hefty girth would allow her. She ran down the corridor past the scullery, the butler's pantry, the laundry and the linen stores. She raced up and up the servants' stairs, down more twisting corridors until she came to her own tiny room in the servants' quarters. She frowned as she heard muffled squeals and giggles.

She flung open the door. Four startled faces turned towards her. Her royal highness, Princess Roana, garbed in a long white nightdress, was caught in the act of thumping a smaller girl over the head with a thick feather pillow. White fluffy gosling down fluttered in the air. Charcoal the kitten leapt gracefully after a drifting feather, batting it with her paw.

The two boys, Ethan and Saxon, guiltily dropped their own feather pillows. A large red-gold dog quickly slunk off the bed and down onto the floor, curling nose to tail into as small a space as possible.

Cookie glanced around in disbelief at the floating feathers, the eiderdowns and comforters scattered in disarray, the filthy packs on the floor and, lastly, the four children in nightshirts standing on her bed.

The children scrambled to the floor, hastily picking up pillows, eiderdowns and feathers in a belated effort to return the room to normality.

‘My dears,' whispered Cookie, tears of panic glistening in her eyes, ‘the Sedahs are looking for you. Even now that snivelling tracker is searching the kitchens for you while a troop of soldiers are combing every room in the palace. We must get you away from here, to safety.'

The four children wilted visibly. They had only just bathed, changed and hidden from their
pursuers. They had had no sleep for hours. They were exhausted and frightened.

‘Pack up your things,' Cookie exhorted. ‘There is no time to change. Try to hide any evidence that you have been here, for the Sedahs will certainly search this room. Be very quiet. I have an idea to smuggle you out of the palace. I'll be back as quickly as I can.'

Cookie turned and ran from the room, carefully locking the door behind her. The four children leapt to work, remaking the bed, folding up comforters, picking up feathers and burning them on the fire, sweeping up any sign of dog hair, packing away their meagre belongings.

When Cookie returned in ten minutes, they were lined up, green cloaks over their white nightgowns, packs over their shoulders and boots on. Cookie had retrieved their filthy clothes from the laundry and found a sack to hold them, while in the other hand was another bulging sack.

‘Come with me,' she ordered in a whisper. ‘Move quickly and quietly. The soldiers are everywhere, searching the palace.'

They all followed without a word.

First went tall, strong Saxon, his face wary, with no sign of its usual mischievousness. Next went the smallest - Lily, her honey blonde hair hanging
nearly to her waist, carrying Charcoal, the kitten. Third was Princess Roana, her hair dyed nut brown and cropped short like a boy's. Next came Ethan, Lily's brother, determined and watchful, his bow strung and arrow nocked. Lastly came Aisha, the dog, her black-tipped ears pricked and her liquid golden eyes searching for danger.

The oddly dressed group slipped down corridors and stairs, following the ample Cookie.

Aisha's claws clicked loudly on the flagged stone floors. Everyone winced to hear them, sure the noise would give them away.

At last Cookie came to a narrow side door, which she peered through cautiously. Outside was a wide driveway, which was empty. Cookie tutted, gesturing to the children to huddle in the shadows. The sound of wheels crunching on gravel indicated that someone was coming. The children pressed back against the walls.

Through the crack between Cookie's girth and the door frame, Ethan could see a dilapidated horse-drawn cart clopping up the driveway. A horrible stench wafted through the doorway.

The driver was a ragged-looking fellow with a dirty face. He pulled on the reins and the fleabitten nag came to a halt near the door.

Cookie opened the door wider, peering up and down the driveway. The driver grinned at her, revealing a mouthful of blackened rotten teeth.

‘Come on,' whispered Cookie to the children. ‘Jake is going to take you to a safe place in the city - an inn run by my brother, Albert. He is your only hope to escape from the palace. Up you jump. You can hide in the cart.'

Four pairs of eyes swung from Jake to the cart. Four noses realised what was piled on the back of the cart.

‘Please hurry,' whispered Cookie urgently. ‘That Sniffer could be here any moment.'

Everyone reluctantly shuffled out into the sunshine. The back of the cart was piled high with palace rubbish - rotting cabbages, soggy tea leaves, slimy potato peelings, chicken bones, carcasses, entrails, carrot tops, broken glass, powdery ashes, smashed crockery, soggy tomatoes and eggshells. The smell was already rank in the early morning sun.

Cookie pushed Saxon forward impatiently. Jake jumped down from his perch. Wordlessly he used a pitchfork to lift up a mound of soggy rubbish, just behind the driver's seat. He shrugged, indicating that the space was for the children. Everyone took a
deep breath and climbed up into the stinky rubbish.

Only Aisha leapt up with alacrity. Lily cuddled Charcoal in her arms, quietening her with soft strokes and murmured endearments.

‘Farewell to you all,' Cookie murmured, her eyes bright with worried tears. ‘I hope we can meet again in better circumstances. My brother Albert should be able to help you find safety.'

Cookie grabbed Roana by the hand and pressed something into her palm, squeezing her fingers tightly around it.

‘Princess, please give this to my brother. Don't let anyone else have it. Destroy it if you must.'

Roana glanced down at her hand. There was a tightly scrolled ribbon of paper, about five centimetres wide, with a few seemingly random letters visible. Roana squeezed Cookie's hand in return, nodding her agreement. Cookie stepped back.

Jake draped filthy sacks over the five of them, then piled up rubbish over the top. Underneath, Roana thought she was going to gag. She pulled a fold of her embroidered nightgown over her nose to filter the smell. The others closed their eyes, thinking of pleasant things to take their mind off the smothering stench of mouldy sacks and rotting waste.

‘Quiet, girl,' soothed Lily, stroking Aisha gently to keep her still.

Jake grunted in satisfaction as he checked the cart load. There was no sign of the illicit passengers.

Cookie pressed her second sack into his hand. Jake opened it and sighed with gladness. Inside were three loaves of freshly baked bread, a jar of honey, fresh tomatoes from the kitchen garden and a brace of rabbits. Jake's family would be well fed tonight, for the first time in weeks. How his wife would shriek when she realised the sack held plentiful fresh food instead of the mouldy crusts and vegetable parings he usually salvaged from the palace rubbish bins.

Jake saluted in gratitude, then clicked mildly to his sway-backed nag. The horse shambled forward, straining with the load. Their progress was painfully slow. After a few minutes a harsh voice demanded that the cart should halt. Ethan, Lily, Roana and Saxon all held their breath anxiously.

‘Who goes there?' demanded the Sedah guards on the palace gates. ‘We have orders that no-one is to pass out of the palace without good reason, until further notice.'

‘ 'Tis Jake Garbageman,' replied the driver in a low voice.

‘And what have we here?' came the response. ‘Is anyone on board?'

The four children hunched down into the splintered boards of the cart. Ethan and Lily both pressed down on Aisha's neck warningly. Aisha quivered with the effort of keeping quiet, while she could smell danger and blood all around.

‘Kitchen filth and garbage,' replied Jake enthusiastically. ‘Like as not I have a few rats on board as well. Would you like me to check?'

He picked up the pitchfork and tossed a handful of pumpkin peelings down near the soldier's feet.

‘Thanks but I'll do it,' replied the guard, wrinkling his nose against the smell.

He grabbed the pitchfork and jabbed it vigorously into the mound of rubbish. He jabbed the sack of filthy clothes, speared Ethan's cloak, missed Lily's foot by a whisker and thrust his way down the cart load, murdering cabbage heads, entrails and fishbones. Roana gasped involuntarily as the pitchfork grazed her leg.

‘What was that?' demanded the guard immedi¬ately, turning rubbish more vigorously. ‘I heard something on the cart.'

‘Just the rats,' laughed Jake. ‘Look, here's the little blighter.'

Jake rummaged in the pile behind his seat and hauled out a large brown rat by the tail. He waved it towards the guard's face. The rat's eyes and teeth gleamed in the sunlight. The guard leapt back in shock.

‘Do you want me to park my cart just over here until your orders say I can leave the palace?' Jake asked eagerly, pointing to a shady spot right beside the guards. ‘I could do with a little nap.'

For Krad's sake, get out of here,' ordered the Sedah guard in disgust, holding his nose.
Jake tucked the brown rat into his pocket and clicked to his nag, looking disappointed at missing the chance to have a nap. The palace gate clanged shut behind them. The sound of the city came in waves, muffled by the sacks and garbage above the children's heads.

Roana kept her eyes closed tightly, imagining the cart crawling with ravenous rats. A terrifying flashback came to her of the swarming mountain of rats they had encountered in the underground tunnels below Tira. The cart swayed and rumbled through the city streets. At last it pulled up and stopped.

The children stayed still. The cart shook as Jake clambered down. There was the rumble of a low voice as Jake calmed his horse, then the scraping of pitchfork on wood as their hiding place was revealed.

Excerpted from The Voyage of the Owl. Copyright Belinda Murrell. Excerpted by permission of Random House Australia. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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