"You wouldn't help Jenna because you were so uptight about keeping your stupid head clear for your Darke Week, and now look what's happened," he told himself angrily. "And you went off to some Darke Alchemie chamber when you know Marcia didn't want you to, and so now you've missed taking part on the most amazing Magyk you are ever likely to see. That, dillop brain, is what getting close to the Darke does. It makes you think only of yourself. It takes you away from people you care about. And now you don't have anyone to talk to and it serves you right."
Septimus veered away from the Cordon and its Magykal camaraderie and headed off into the night. He had reached the riverbank and was jogging toward the Palace Landing Stage when the ghost of Alice Nettles suddenly Appeared to him. Since Alther's Banishment, Alice didn't Appear anymore, but she made an exception for Septimus. Alice was the only ghost Septimus knew who always seemed to react to the weather and tonight, even though he knew she could not feel the cold, she looked frozen.
"Hello, Alice," he said.
"Hello, Septimus," said Alice in a faraway voice. She turned to Septimus and, for the first time ever, the ghost of Alice Nettles reached out to a human being. She put her hands on Septimus's shoulders and said, "Bring my Alther back, Apprentice. Bring him back."
"I'll do my best, Alice," Septimus replied, thinking how cold Alice's touch was.
"You will go tonight?" she asked.
The key to Dungeon Number One - and the beginning of his Darke Week - hung heavy in his pocket. But the Cordon had thrown all of Septimus's plans into confusion. He had absolutely no idea what was going on or what Marcia would be doing at midnight. He hesitated.
Alice looked anxiously at Septimus. "You do not answer, Apprentice."
Septimus saw the stricken look in Alice's eyes and he made a decision. He may have let Jenna down but he was not going to do the same with Alice. He would enter Dungeon Number One whether Marcia was there or not. "Yes, Alice. I will go and get Alther."
A slow smile dawned on Alice's face. "Thank you," she said. "Thank you from the bottom of my heart."
Septimus left Alice wandering along the Landing Stage, gazing dreamily at the river. He walked slowly along the riverbank, plunged into gloom. Never - not even in the Young Army - had Septimus felt so alone. He realized how he had become used to being in the very center of things, to being an integral and important part of the Magykal life of the Castle. Now that he suddenly found himself on the outside of the Magykal circle - literally - he felt bereft.
Septimus trudged through the long grass right at the edge of the riverbank, while the dark, cold waters of the river ran silently by. Tiny snowflakes drifted down and settled on his thick woolen cloak, and the grass felt crisp with frost beneath his feet. As he walked Septimus felt the presence of the Palace looming up on his left side. Like the scene of a horrible accident, his eyes felt drawn to it. And every time he glanced up with a feeling of dread, he saw yet another window go dark, and he could not help but imagine that Jenna was still in there, trapped somewhere.
He plowed on along the riverbank, convinced he could have stopped whatever was happening to the Palace if only he had helped Jenna when she had asked him. But it was all too late. Jenna wasn't here to ask him now. He was on his own - and he had only himself to blame.
Septimus reached the gate that led through the tall hedge into the Dragon Field. He pushed it open. There was only one creature left for him to talk to - his dragon, Spit Fyre.
Chapter 21 Quarantine
Inside the Palace, unaware of the events silently unfolding around her, Sarah Heap was perched precariously at the top of a stepladder in the Palace entrance hall. By the light of a beautiful chandelier (it had taken Billy Pot ten whole minutes to light all of its candles) Sarah was busy nailing up a banner that read HAPPY 14TH BIRTHDAY JENNA AND SEPTIMUS above the archway that led into the Long Walk. She was not pleased to hear the sound of approaching footsteps outside.
"Botheration," Sarah muttered under her breath. She knew that one set of footsteps belonged to Marcia Overstrand - somehow Marcia always managed to walk everywhere as though she owned the place. Sarah struggled irritably with the unwieldy banner above her head. Trust Marcia to arrive early, she thought. Well, she would have to make herself useful until the party started. Goodness knows there was plenty to do. Oops. She could hold the stepladder steady for a start.
The sound of the footsteps changed from cinder scrunches on the path to purposeful tippy-taps of purple python on wood as they crossed the bridge over the ornamental moat. They were followed by equally purposeful - but less proprietary - thuds of the footsteps of Marcia's companions.
The Palace doors were pushed open and the tippy-taps strode across the stone floor of the entrance hall. They halted below Sarah's ladder.
"Sarah Heap," Marcia announced.
Why, Sarah wondered crossly, did Marcia have to sound so officious? She turned around, hammer raised, the last two nails held between her lips.
"Mrgh?" said Sarah, finally deigning to look down at her visitors. "Ah, hrr Brrr n Hrrrr," she said, actually pleased to see two of Marcia's companions, Beetle and Hildegarde, although less pleased to see the young witch they had with them. She took the nails out of her mouth. "You're early," she said. "But I could do with some help. There's always more to do than you think to get a party ready."
"Mum," said the young witch.
Sarah nearly dropped her hammer. "Goodness, Jenna. It's you. I didn't know this was going to be a fancy dress party."
"Mum, it's not, but - " Jenna began, wanting to explain before Marcia jumped in with both feet.
Sarah looked disapproving. "Well, I don't know why you are walking around in that witch stuff," she said. "You really shouldn't. It's not nice."
"Sorry. It's been a bit of a rush. But - "
"You're telling me. We're not nearly ready for the party, and now - "
"Mum, listen - "
"The party's cancelled," said Marcia.
Sarah dropped the hammer, narrowly missing Marcia's right foot. "What?" she said angrily.
"Canceled. You and everyone inside the Palace have five minutes to leave."
Sarah was down the ladder in a flash. "Marcia Overstrand, how dare you?"
"Mum," said Jenna. "Please listen, it's important, something has - "
"Thank you, Jenna, I'll handle this," said Marcia. "Sarah, it is my job to ensure the safety of the Palace. There's a Cordon encircling the building and I am now putting it in Quarantine."
Sarah looked exasperated. "Look here, Marcia, there is no need to go to such extremes. I don't know what Septimus or Jenna have been telling you about the party, but you really mustn't take any notice. Their father and I will be here and we have no intention of letting things get out of hand."
"It seems they already have got out of hand, Sarah," said Marcia. She put her hand up to stop Sarah's protests. "Sarah, listen to me, I am not talking about the party. And may I say, the fact that you and Silas have been here appears to have been no safeguard against anything whatsoever. Indeed, I am surprised - and not a little disappointed - that Silas has allowed this to happen."
"It's only a little birthday party, Marcia," Sarah said snappily. "Of course we've allowed it to happen."
"Sarah, for goodness' sake, listen to what I am saying. I am not talking about the birthday party," Marcia replied, equally snappily. "And you can stop waving that hammer around too."
Sarah looked at the hammer in her hand as though she was surprised to find it there. She shrugged and placed it on the stepladder.
"Thank you," said Marcia.
"So what are you talking about?" Sarah demanded.
"I am talking about your lodger in the attic."
"What lodger? We don't have lodgers," Sarah said indignantly. "Things may be a bit tough sometimes but we haven't had to rent the Palace out as a guesthouse quite yet. And even if we did, I hardly think we need your permission, thank you very much." Sarah folded up the stepladder with an angry bang and began to heave it into the Long Walk. Beetle stepped forward and took it from her.
"Thank you, Beetle," said Sarah, "that's very sweet of you. Excuse me, Marcia, I have things to do." With that she began gathering up the remains of streamers that were scattered across the floor.