Gringe's eyes widened in surprise. “What?” he said.

“Put that portrait back exactly where you found it. The one of Queen Etheldredda.”

“Well, I'm not surprised he don't like lookin' at it—she's a scary old bird, no mistake about it—but just in case you 'adn't noticed, I got a gatehouse to run 'ere and I can't just drop everythin' an' go rearrangin' someone's pictures for 'em.” Gringe turned away abruptly to take a silver penny from a returning Infirmary nurse.

Marcia saw Septimus's look of dismay. She had no idea what it was about, but she had learned enough over the past few months to know that if something was bothering Septimus, she should take notice of it. She swept onto the drawbridge where Gringe was now passing time with a couple of boys coming back from the Forest with bunches of kindling.

“Gringe,” she said, towering over the Gatekeeper, her winter cloak blowing in the breeze and making Gringe sneeze, because he was allergic to fur. “You will do as you are asked, now. You and Silas Heap are to move that portrait and I will come and ReSeal the room. Mark my words, there will be trouble if I do not find that portrait exactly where it should be.”

“Atchooo! Can't—atchooo—leave the Gate—atchooo, atchooo, atchooooo—unattended.”

“Mrs. Gringe can step in.”

“Mrs. Gringe is visiting her sister in the Infirmary. Got bit yesterday.”

“Oh. I'm very sorry. Well, Lucy then.”

“Lucy, in case you didn't know, has run off after that no-good brother of your Apprentice, much good may it do her,” snapped Gringe. “But if it's so important, I'll go an' do the picture after sunset once I got the bridge up. Awright?”

“No, Gringe, that will not be all right. You will just have to close the North Gate for the afternoon.”

Gringe looked horrified. “I can't do that,” he protested. “That has never been done in my time as a Gatekeeper. Never.”

“There's always a first time for everything, Gringe,” Marcia said in a steely voice.

“Just as there will be a first time for a Gatekeeper being sent to the lock-up while still on duty.”

“Eh? You wouldn't...”

“I would. Indeed, I will.”

“Very well then. Excuse me for a moment, Madam Marcia.” Gringe went over to the gatehouse door and yelled into the shadows of the drawbridge winding room. "Hey!

Bridge Boy!“ bawled Gringe. ”Wake up, yer lazy lummox!"

The Bridge Boy appeared, bleary-eyed. “What?” he said grumpily.

“Promotion for you,” Gringe told him. “You're taking over until Mrs. Gringe gets back. No pocketing the money, mind, be polite to the customers and don't let no one over without paying, especially your good-for-nothing friends. Got that?”

The Bridge Boy, who was staring open-mouthed at the sight of the ExtraOrdinary Wizard standing no more than a few feet away, nodded slowly.

“Good,” snapped Gringe, “because I am on an important mission for the ExtraOrdinary and I don't want to be worrying about the bridge while I'm away on such a delicate matter.” Gringe handed the Bridge Boy his money bag along with the warning “An I know exactly how much is in there, so don't try any funny business.”

Then he turned and set off from the North Gate gatehouse with a sigh. More Heap trouble, he thought. Didn't he have enough already?


The Infirmary

The Infirmary was a bleak place, despite the best efforts of the healers who worked there. It was a long, low wooden building, hidden under the outlying trees of the Forest, covered with moss and mold after years of water dripping from the trees above and mists seeping up from the Moat below. The Infirmary was not often used, except for cases of sickness that were thought to be contagious, but there were now so many Castle inhabitants who had become ill that no one was taking any chances.

Marcia and Septimus approached the Infirmary along the now well-worn path on the far bank of the Moat. The afternoon light was fading, and as they approached, they could see the flicker of the first candles being placed in the tiny windows. The door was open, and with some trepidation, Marcia and Septimus went inside.

“Septimus! Is that you? What are you doing here?” Sarah Heap leaped up from her work. She had been sitting at a small table by the door, measuring out doses of ground-up leaves into rows of tiny pots neatly lined up in front of her. Sarah had not been out of the Infirmary since she had arrived and Silas had decided not to worry her about Septimus's disappearance and just hope for the best, which, for once, had been the right thing to do.

Sarah looked at her youngest son. “What have you done to your hair?” she asked.

“It's a terrible mess. Really, Marcia, I know he's getting to that awkward age, but you should make him comb his hair once in a while.”

“We haven't come to discuss Septimus's hairstyle, Sarah,” said Marcia, who guessed, with some relief, that Sarah knew nothing of what had happened. “We have come on urgent business.”

Sarah took no notice of the ExtraOrdinary Wizard. She had not taken her eyes off Septimus and wore a puzzled frown. “You look ... different, Septimus,” she said.

“Have you been ill? Is there something you haven't told me?” she asked, beginning to get suspicious.

“No,” said Marcia, far too quickly.

“I'm fine, Mum,” said Septimus. “Really fine. Look, I've made an Antidote to this Sickenesse.”

Sarah looked at Septimus fondly. “That's very sweet of you, love,” she said, “but lots of people have tried and it's no good, nothing seems to work.”

“But this will work, Mum—I know it will.”

“Oh, Septimus,” said Sarah gently, “I know how worried you must be about Beetle, I know how much you liked him—”

“Liked?” asked Septimus, suddenly scared. “What do you mean liked? I still like Beetle—lots. H-He's okay ... isn't he?”

Sarah looked serious. “He's not well, Septimus. He ... oh, dear. He is very ill and we don't have much hope. Would you like to see him?”

Septimus nodded. He and Marcia followed Sarah through some swinging doors into the Infirmary ward, a long room that occupied the entire building. A row of narrow beds lined each side of the ward. The beds were crowded close together and every single one was occupied. The figures lay still and deathly pale in their beds, some had their eyes closed and some gazed at the ceiling, seeing nothing. The ward was hushed and still, full of late-afternoon shadows, which were slowly being dispersed by a young helper, who moved down the ward carrying a tray of candles, placing one in each window to keep the night at bay a little longer, as well as any stray Forest creatures. Septimus found it strange that for so many people crammed together in such a small space, there was very little noise; in fact, the only sound that he could hear was the occasional metallic ping as a drip of water found its way through the rotten shingles on the roof and hit one of the assortment of metal buckets placed at strategic points.

“Beetle's over here,” whispered Sarah, putting her hand on her son's shoulder and guiding him toward a nearby bed. “He's near the door so that we can keep an eye on him.”

If Sarah had not taken them to Beetle's very bedside, Septimus would never have found his best friend. The only thing that was recognizable was Beetle's shock of thick black hair, which his mother, who had only just left, had lovingly combed flat in a particular way that Septimus just knew Beetle would hate. The rest of Beetle was a pale white rag of a boy with wide staring eyes that saw nothing.

Sarah looked with concern at Septimus. “I'm so sorry, love,” she said. “Would you like to sit with Beetle for a while? His mother will be back soon with his father, but you'll have a little time with him before they get here.” Sarah brought an extra chair for Marcia, and she and Septimus sat down at Beetle's bedside. “I must get on now, Septimus,” said Sarah. “I'll come back in a few minutes.”

Septimus was suddenly horribly afraid that the Antidote would not work. He glanced nervously at Marcia, who whispered, “It will work, Septimus. You must believe in it.”

“ Physik isn't like Magyk,” said Septimus unhappily. “It doesn't matter whether you expect it to work or not. Either it does or it doesn't.”

“I doubt that very much,” said Marcia. "A little belief in something always helps.