Jenna and Septimus grinned at each other cautiously. Three down - but how many to go?

The Thing felled by Septimus lay inert in the straw with a long strand of Darke Thread almost lost in the scraggly folds of its neck. Jenna still had her cloak wrapped around the other Thing's head, but it wasn't something she wanted to do for long.

"Sep, I'm stuck," she whispered. "If I get up then this Thing will too."

"Just leave your cloak over it, Jen. It's a Darke cloak and you shouldn't be messing with it. Leave it there and it will carry on smothering the Thing all on its own."

Jenna was not impressed. "I'm not leaving my cloak. No way."

Septimus glanced around nervously, wondering if there were any more Things. He didn't want a discussion with Jenna right then, but some things just had to be said.

"Jen," he whispered urgently. "You don't seem to realize. Your cloak is a Darke witch cloak. It's not good. You shouldn't be playing around with it."

"I am not playing around with anything."

"You are. Leave the cloak."

"No."

"Jen," Septimus protested. "This is the cloak talking, not you. Leave it."

Jenna fixed Septimus with her Princess look. "Listen, Sep, this is me talking - not some lump of wool, okay? This cloak is my responsibility. When I want to get rid of it I will do it properly so that no one else can get hold of it. But right now I want to keep it. You forget that you've got all this weird Magyk stuff to protect you. You know what to do against the Darke. I don't. This cloak is all I have. It was given to me and I am not leaving it on this disgusting Thing."

Septimus knew when to give up. "Okay, Jen. You take your cloak. I'll Freeze that one as well."

Expertly Septimus muttered a quick Freeze. "You can get your cloak back now, Jen," he said. "If you really want."

"Yes, Sep. I do really want." Jenna snatched her cloak off the Thing and to Septimus's amazement she put it on.

Septimus decided to leave his Darke thread buried deep into the raggedy skin folds of the other Thing's neck. There were some things he never wanted to do and ping into the folds of a Thing's neck was one of them. Close up, Things have a foul, dead-rat kind of smell and there is something truly revolting about direct contact with them. When a human touches them, strips of slimy skin peel off and stick to flesh like glue.

Spit Fyre had watched with interest as his Pilot and Navigator so very effectively immobilized his attackers. There is a widespread theory that dragons do not feel gratitude, but this is not true - they just don't show it in a way that people recognize. Spit Fyre lumbered obediently out of the Dragon House. He carefully avoided treading on any toes and refrained from snorting in Septimus's face - this was dragon gratitude at its fullest.

Septimus stood close to the comforting bulk of Spit Fyre and scanned the eerily purple Dragon Field.

"Do you think there are more Things?" Jenna whispered, looking uneasily behind her.

"I dunno, Jen," muttered Septimus. "They could be anywhere . . . everywhere. Who can tell?"

"Not everywhere, Sep. There's one place they can't go." Jenna pointed skyward.

Septimus grinned. "Come on, Spit Fyre," he said. "Let's get out of here."

Chapter 31 Horse Stuff

The Gringe family was upstairs in the gatehouse. They had come home early from their traditional Longest Night wander down Wizard Way because Mrs. Gringe had felt ignored by Rupert - who had been talking to Nicko for much of the time - and had demanded to go home. Consequently they had missed the Raising of the Safety Curtain, although it would have meant little to them as the Gringes treated Magyk with great suspicion.

Mrs. Gringe was sitting in her chair, unraveling a knitted sock with quick, irritable movements, while Gringe was poking at the small log fire that they allowed themselves on the Longest Night. The chimney was cold and choked with soot, and the fire was refusing to draw and was filling the room with smoke.

Rupert Gringe, his filial duty of the Wizard Way promenade done for another year, stood hovering by the door, anxious to be away. He had a new girlfriend - the skipper of one of the Port barges - and he wanted to be there to meet her when the late-night barge arrived at the boatyard.

Beside Rupert stood Nicko Heap, equally anxious to be gone. Nicko had come along because Rupert had asked him. "There's not so much shouting if someone else is there," Rupert had said. But that was not the only reason Nicko had come. The truth was, he was feeling unsettled. Snorri and her mother had taken their boat, the Alfrun, on a trip to the Port and "only a little way out to sea, Nicko. We'll be back in a few days," Snorri had promised. When he had asked her why, Snorri had been evasive. But Nicko knew why - they were testing the Alfrun's seaworthiness. He knew that Snorri's mother wanted Snorri and the Alfrun to come home with her, and something told Nicko that Snorri wanted that too. And when Nicko thought about it - which he tried not to - he felt a sense of freedom at the thought of Snorri going away. But it was tinged with sadness, and after Lucy's excited talk of weddings, Nicko longed to get back to the boatyard. At least you knew where you were with boats, he thought.

Lucy smiled at her brother trying to edge out the door. She knew exactly how he felt. Tomorrow she would be away on the early morning Port barge and she couldn't wait.

"You definitely booked a horse space, Rupe?" she asked him, not for the first time.

Rupert looked exasperated. "Yes, Luce. I told you. The early morning barge has two horse berths and Thunder's got one. For sure. Maggie said."

"Maggie?" asked his mother, looking up from her sock unravelling, suddenly alert.

"The skipper, Mother," Rupert said quickly.

It was not lost on Mrs. Gringe that Rupert had gone bright pink, his face clashing with his spiky, carrot-colored hair. "Oh. She's a skipper, is she?" Mrs. Gringe tugged at a knot, determined to unpick it. "Funny job for a girl, that."

Rupert was old enough now not rise to the bait. He ignored his mother's comments and continued his conversation with Lucy. "Come down to the boatyard early tomorrow morning, Luce. About six. We'll - I mean I'll help you load him before the passengers arrive."

Lucy smiled at her brother. "Thanks, Rupe. Sorry. I'm just a bit edgy."

"Aren't we all," said Rupert. He hugged his sister and Lucy returned his hug. She didn't see much of Rupert and she missed him.

After Rupert had left, Lucy felt the eyes of both her parents on her. It was not a comfortable feeling. "I'll go and check on Thunder," she said. "I thought I heard him whinny just then."

"Don't be long," said her mother. "Supper's nearly done. Shame your brother couldn't wait for supper," she sniffed. "It's stew."

"Thought it might be," muttered Lucy.

"What?"

"Nothing, Ma. Back in a tick."

Lucy clattered down the wooden stairs and pushed open the battered old door that led onto the run up to the drawbridge. She took a few deep breaths of smoke-free, snowy air and walked briskly around to the old stable at the back of the gatehouse, where Thunder was residing. Lucy pushed open the door and the horse, lit by the lamp that she had left in the tiny high window, looked at her, the whites of his eyes glistening. He pawed the straw, shook his head with its dark, heavy mane and gave a restless whinny.

Lucy was not a great horse person, and Thunder was bit of a mystery to her. She was fond of the horse because Simon loved him so much, but she was also wary. It was his hooves that worried her - they were big and heavy and she was never quite sure what Thunder was going to do with them. She knew that even Simon took care not to stand behind the horse in case he kicked.

Lucy approached Thunder cautiously and very gently patted the horse's nose. "Silly old horse coming all this way to see me. Simon must be so upset that you've gone. Won't he be pleased to see you? Silly old horse . . ."

Lucy suddenly had a vivid picture in her mind of riding Thunder off the Port barge and Simon's look of amazement when he saw what she could do. She knew it was possible; she had seen the daredevil boys who rode their horses off the barge instead of leading them. It couldn't be that difficult, she thought. It was only up the gangplank, which was not exactly far to ride a horse. Then Simon could take over and they could ride back together. It would be such fun . . .

Lost in her daydream, Lucy decided to see how easy it was to actually get up onto Thunder. Not at all, was the answer. Lucy regarded the horse, which stood so much taller than her - his back was as high as her head. How did people get onto horses? Ah, thought Lucy, saddles. They had saddles. With things for your feet. But Lucy did not have a saddle. Gringe had not found one cheap enough, and Thunder had had to make do with a thick horse blanket - which Lucy rather liked, as it was covered in stars. It was also, in the cold, much more useful to him.

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