"Trust you?" spluttered Septimus - worried by the fact that he had actually agreed with everything Simon had said. "You must be joking."

The argument continued.

Sarah tried to ignore her sons. She wanted them to sort things out between them and she hoped that the knowledge that a Darke Domaine was coming their way would concentrate their minds. She busied herself checking all the preserved and dried food that Silas had piled up in the larder - and she told Septimus and Simon to stop bickering. She calmed Thunder by blowing on his nose and whispering to him - and she told Septimus and Simon that there was to be no arguing about anything. She began sweeping up some wood shavings that Silas had left behind - and she told Jenna to keep out of other people's quarrels. She told Lucy to let Jenna be. And then, when a full-on fight, with Jenna and Septimus on one side and Simon and Lucy on the other, seemed inevitable, Sarah's patience ran out.

"Stop it, all of you!" she yelled, banging the end of her broom on the floor. "Stop it right now!"

The melee by the door paused and they looked at Sarah, surprised.

"I will have no angry words in this room, do you understand?" Sarah told them. "I don't care what any of you have done in the past, I don't care how stupid or misguided or just plain bad you have been - and some of you have been all of those - because you are my children. All of you. And yes, Lucy, that includes you too now. Whatever any of you have done, however much you have hurt each other in the past, when you are in this room you will put that to one side. You will behave toward each other as brothers and sisters should. Is that understood?"

"Well said," murmured Marcellus.

Jenna, Septimus, Simon and Lucy looked dumbfounded. They nodded sheepishly. Simon and Lucy went and sat by the fire, leaving Septimus to do the Anti-Darke his own way, which was also, Simon noticed, his way.

Jenna went over to the window. An unusually quiet rat was sitting on the windowsill, gazing out.

"Hello, Stanley," she said.

"Hello, your Majestyness," Stanley replied with a heavy sigh.

Jenna followed his gaze to the river. Across the water the lights of the Grateful Turbot Tavern could just be seen flickering through the trees, and far below the indigo ribbon of the river flowed slowly past.

"It's clear out there," said Jenna. "Isn't it lovely? No Darke stuff."

"Only a matter of time," Stanley replied gloomily.

The flap of a wounded shoe sounded behind them. Marcellus joined them at the window. "Not so," he said. "A Darke Domaine is stopped by flowing water, especially by that which is influenced by the tides of the moon."

"Really?" said Jenna. "So . . . outside here, outside this window, will stay safe?"

Marcellus peered down. It was a precipitous drop straight down to the water's edge. "I believe so," he said. "The river runs close here."

Jenna knew all about that. She had watched the river from her own little window in her cupboard for as long as she could remember. "It comes right up to the walls," she said. "There's no bank at all, just some pontoons for boats to tie up to."

"Then there is nowhere for the Domaine to go," said Marcellus.

"In that case," said Stanley, who had been listening with great interest, "I'll be off."

"You're going?" asked Jenna.

"I must, your Majestyness. I've got four ratlets out there all alone. Goodness knows what's happening to them."

"But how're you going to get down?" Jenna looked out the window. It was a very long way down indeed.

"A rat has its ways, your Royal Personageness. Besides, I do believe I can see a drainpipe. If you'd be so kind as to open the window, I'll be off."

Jenna looked at Marcellus questioningly. "Is it safe to do that?" she asked.

"It is, Princess - for the moment at least. Of course, we do not know what will trickle down from the roof later. If the rat needs to go, it had better go now."

Stanley looked relieved. "If you'll do the honors, Sir, I'll go right away," he said.

Marcellus looked puzzled. "What honors?"

"He means open the window," explained Jenna, who had spent enough time with Stanley to be able to translate.

Marcellus pulled the window ajar and a gust of cold fresh air blew into the room.

"What are you doing?" cried Sarah, aghast. "You'll let it all in. Close the window now!"

Quickly the rat hopped onto the sill and peered down, trying to figure out the best way down the sheer rock face of the Ramblings.

"Stanley, please, could you - " Jenna began as Sarah came hurtling across the room, still holding her broom.

"Could I what?" asked Stanley edgily, eyeing Sarah with the suspicion of a rat used to trouble with brooms.

"Find Nicko - Nicko Heap, at Jannit's boatyard. Tell him what's happening. Tell him where we are. Please?"

Sarah slammed the window shut.

On the other side of the glass, Jenna saw Stanley's little rat mouth open wide in surprise as he tumbled away into the night.

"Mum!" yelled Jenna. "What are you doing? You've killed him."

"Better a rat than all of us, Jenna," said Sarah. "Anyway, he'll be all right. Rats always land on their feet."

"That's cats, Mum, not rats. Oh, poor Stanley!" Jenna peered down but she could see no sign of him anywhere. She sighed. She didn't understand her mother, she really didn't. She would happily send a rat hurtling to its doom and yet risk her life for a duck.

"He'll find something to catch hold of, Princess," said Marcellus. "Don't you worry."

"I hope so," said Jenna.

Stanley's eviction upset everyone - including Sarah. She hadn't meant for the rat to fall. In her panic to close the window, she hadn't registered the fact that Stanley was on the outside. But Sarah was not going to admit to that. She needed to keep control of things, and if people thought she was tough enough to throw out a rat to its possible demise, then that was no bad thing.

Sarah set about organizing everyone, and soon there was a fire blazing and a fragrant stew bubbling in the pot hanging above it. A stew, Lucy noted, as far removed from her mother's as to be worthy of a different name. At the thought of her mother, Lucy sighed. She hardly dared think what was happening to her parents just then - or to Rupert in the boatyard. In fact, it was all so frightening that Lucy hardly dared think at all. She sat close to Simon beside the fire and held him tight. At least Simon - bruised and battered though he was from the Fetch - was safe.

Simon drew Lucy close to him. "They'll be okay, Lu," he said. "Don't you worry."

But Lucy did worry. And so did everyone else behind the Big Red Door.

Chapter 36 Outside

Stanley fell farther than he had ever fallen before. A rat's life was precarious, particularly that of a Message Rat, and Stanley had fallen off things many times before - but never anything as high as the top floor of the Ramblings. And he had certainly never been pushed.

It was probably being pushed that saved him. It was such a surprise to suddenly find himself airborne that Stanley was quite relaxed as he was launched into space. And so when he landed in the middle of one of the many scraggly bushes growing out of the Ramblings walls, bounced off, tumbled ten feet farther and landed - just - in a larger cousin of the previous bush, Stanley's little rat bones did not snap into pieces as they might have done if his muscles had been tensely awaiting their doom. Dazed, Stanley lay, listening to the sound of its bare winter branches slowly cracking under his weight.

The final craaaaaack of the branch did, however, make the rat a little tense. It suddenly swung down like a broken bone itself and, just in time, Stanley performed a neat leap to a large stone that was jutting out of the wall. His long, delicate claws curled into the masonry and, very slowly, the rat began what he later described (many times) as his controlled descent.

The walls at this point of the Ramblings went straight down into the river but, luckily for Stanley, far away in the Port the tide was going out, and the river even as far up as the Castle was affected by the tides. At the bottom of his controlled descent Stanley clambered down the huge blocks of slimy green stone that formed the base of the Ramblings (and spent most of their time under water), slipped off and landed in the river mud with a faint plop.

The rat now began the long trek home. He skirted the Castle walls, hopping up onto the riverbank when he could, leaping over rocks, rotting hulks and mud flats when he couldn't. It was a dismal and occasionally frightening journey. Once Stanley thought he heard a distant roar come from deep within the Castle and the sound unsettled him, but it was not repeated and he began to think he had imagined it. As Stanley traveled onward he could not help but glance up at the Castle, searching for a lighted window to raise his spirits. But there were none. He had left the only one far behind him, and he began to wonder if even that was now Darke. The darkness frightened Stanley. He had never paid much attention to the Castle lights before; rats did not understand humans' love of light and flames. They preferred shadows where they could run unseen; light meant danger and usually someone wielding a broom - or worse. But that night Stanley began to appreciate the human love of light. As he hopped through yet another patch of sticky, fishy mud he realized that, in the past, when he had looked up and seen lights in windows, he had known that behind each flickering candle flame there was the person who had lit it - someone who was in the room, busy by the light of the candle. It meant, thought Stanley, life. But now, with every window dark, it felt as if the Castle was empty of all human life. And without humans, what is a rat to do?

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