"You okay, Sep?" Jenna asked after a while.
"There's a ship," he said, pointing out to sea. "Look."
Four heads turned to look, and four pairs of eyes that had been staring into the bright embers of the fire could see nothing.
"Sep, you need some sleep. Your eyes are playing tricks again," said Jenna. It was the last straw. Angrily Septimus sprang to his feet. "You just don't get it, do you?" he said. "You sit there, laughing and making stupid noises like nothing's happened, blind to what's right in front of you." Without another word, he strode off up the beach, back to the dunes.
"Sep - " said Beetle, getting up to go after him.
Jenna tugged Beetle back down beside her. "Let him go," she said. "Sometimes Sep just needs to be on his own. He'll be fine in the morning."
Septimus reached the dunes and his temper evaporated in the darkness. He stood for a moment, half-tempted to go back to the comforting glow of the fire on the beach and his friends sitting around it. But Septimus had had enough of backing down for one night. He decided to climb to the top of the dunes and watch the ship. He would prove he was right - if only to himself.
He scrambled up through the dunes and soon emerged onto the firmer ground of the central spit of land. He stopped and caught his breath. It was beautiful. The sky was clear and a shower of stars frosted the night. The tide was gently ebbing, leaving sandbars glistening in the moonlight, revealing for a few hours a secret pattern of ancient roads. Roads that had belonged to the people who had lived on the island long ago, before the floods came and divided one island into seven.
Septimus shaded his eyes and looked for the ship, half expecting that he had imagined it and that now he would see nothing. But there it was, much closer now, the moonlight picking out the white of the sails. It seemed to him to be sailing straight for the island. He was about to rush down to the beach to tell the others when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a line of blue lights glimmering through the trees at the top of the hill. He threw himself to the ground.
Septimus lay hidden in the grass, hardly daring to breathe. He watched the lights, waiting for them to move down the hill toward him, but they stayed in exactly the same place. Finally he figured out what the lights were - the line of little windows at the very top of the Peepe. As Septimus lay wondering what they could mean, he saw a roll of mist begin to emerge from the trees below the Peepe and tumble down the hill to the sea. He shivered. The air around him suddenly felt cold and the mist was oddly purposeful, as though it were on its way to an appointment.
Septimus got to his feet. Suddenly the combination of fire and friends were irresistible. He ran back down through the dunes, and in front of him the mist spread along the shore and began to tumble across the water, thickening as it went. The beach was already engulfed in mist, but the reddish glow from the fire guided him back. Breathless, he reached the fire. Beetle was busy throwing on more wood.
"Wotcha, Sep." He grinned, relieved to see Septimus. "We'll keep this going tonight. This mist is weird."
Chapter 39 Nicko's Watch
Nicko was at the wheel of the Cerys. It was a beautiful night; the moon was rising in the sky and a myriad of stars were shining down on the elegant, finely tuned ship. The wind was perfect, it blew steadily, sending the ship singing through the waves. Exhilarated, Nicko breathed in the salt air of the sea - the sea that he had dreamed of for such a very, very long time and had been so afraid he would never see again. He could hardly believe that he was now back in his own Time, at the wheel of the most beautiful ship he had ever seen, heading for home. Nicko knew that he would remember this moment for the rest of his life.
The purposeful motion of the ship and the swell of the indigo-blue water, carrying fleeting glimpses of phosphorescence, soothed away Nicko's frayed and frazzled edges. The Cerys responded easily to his turns on the wheel, the wind perfectly filling her sails. Nicko glanced up at the sails and then smiled at Snorri, his navigator. Snorri was leaning against the rail, her long fair hair blowing in the breeze, her green eyes sparkling with excitement. Beside her stood Ullr, black and sleek in his nighttime guise as a panther. Feeling Nicko's gaze upon her, Snorri turned around and smiled.
"We did it, Snorri. We did it! " Nicko laughed. "And look at us now!"
"We are lucky," Snorri said simply. "So lucky."
This was the first night that Milo had left Nicko in sole charge of the ship. The previous night, the first mate - a cynical man who considered the gangly, unkempt Nicko Heap far too young to have control of the Cerys - had stood observing Nicko's every move as he steered the ship steadily through the waves, looking for the slightest error to report back to Milo. But to his chagrin he found none. He saw Nicko steer a steady course, reacting perfectly to the wind. He watched him take the Cerys safely past a trio of fishing boats with their nets spread wide under the brilliant moon and, much to the first mate's surprise, steering an unflustered course through a pod of whales, their dark massive backs like islands in the night.
The first mate may have been a cynical man, but he was also an honest man. He told his master that Nicko was a surprisingly competent helmsman and if only the boy were ten years older he would have no objection to him taking charge of the Cerys on the night passage. Milo - who had been filled in on the peculiarities of the House of Foryx by Jenna - thought that, all things considered, Nicko was probably older than the entire ship's company put together, and so he had left Nicko in sole charge of the helm on the second night of their voyage back to the Castle.
And so Nicko was king of the waves. The fresh smell of the sea filled his nose, his lips tasted of salt spray and his eyes roamed over the wide-open horizon unfettered by walls, unclouded by candle smoke. Below him were the wild depths of the ocean and above him was the glitter dust of stars, with nothing but a thin blanket of air lying between Nicko Heap and the entire universe. Nicko's head swam with joy at his freedom. But Nicko's delight did not take away an ounce of his concentration from the task - to steer the Cerys safely through the night until the first Day Watch helmsman took over at sunrise.
Nicko knew the night's passage plan by heart. He was to steer a southwesterly course, 210 degrees by the compass, until the loom of the CattRokk Light was visible on the horizon. The first mate had told Nicko and Snorri the lighthouse was easily identified - it looked like a cat. The light was fixed and shone from two "eyes" - though until you drew near, it looked like one. To complete the cat impression, the tower was topped with two earlike protuberances. Nicko was intrigued at the first mate's description of the CattRokk Light. If he had heard it from anyone else he would have thought it was a joke, but Nicko could tell that the first mate was not a man who made jokes. Nicko would head for the lighthouse until the one "eye" became two, and then turn the Cerys to the south and steer a course 80 degrees by the compass. This would take the ship close to another lighthouse - with ears but no light - which the first mate had assured Nicko he would be able to see, because by then the moon would be at its height. At a bearing of 270 degrees to the dark lighthouse, Nicko was to steer a southeasterly course, which should - wind and tide permitting - take the Cerys straight to the Double Dune Light.
It was not the most straightforward of courses, but Nicko was confident that he and Snorri could do it. The first mate had annoyed him by insisting three times that they must not on any account take the Cerys southeast of the CattRokk Light, toward the island that lay beyond. Nicko had replied that if he could avoid a whale, he thought he could probably manage to steer clear of an island.
Suddenly Snorri's excited cry broke through Nicko's thoughts. "There it is! I can see the loom. Look!"
From the lookout in the crow's nest came an echoing shout, "CattRokk dead ahead!"
Sure enough, on the horizon Nicko saw a misty diffusion of light, almost like the glimmerings of the sunrise - and the Cerys was headed straight toward the glow. Nicko felt elated. For all his apparent confidence, he had been worried that he might steer too southerly a course and miss the CattRokk Light completely. He glanced down at the heavy globe of the compass rocking gently in its binnacle and smiled - the needle was steady at 210 degrees exactly.
The Cerys cut through the waves, heading toward the glow, which crept above the horizon and became ever brighter. It was, Nicko thought, not quite as he had anticipated. The CattRokk Light was known for its great height, and yet the light appeared much nearer to the water than he had expected.