And so it was a rat filled with foreboding that finally scaled the outside wall of the East Gate Lookout Tower - headquarters of the Message Rat Service and home to Stanley and his four teenage ratlets. Stanley peered in through the tiny, arrow-slit window and saw nothing. But he smelled something. His delicate rat nose smelled the Darke - a sour, stale smell with a touch of burned pumpkin about it - and he knew he was too late. The Darke Domaine had invaded his home and somewhere inside were the four foundling ratlets whom Stanley loved more than anything else in the world.

Florence, Morris, Robert and Josephine - known to all but Stanley as Flo, Mo, Bo and Jo - appeared to any other rat to be four scrawny, awkward teen ratlets, but to Stanley they were perfection itself. They had been no more than a few days old when he had found them abandoned in a hole in the wall on the Outside Path. Stanley - who had never been remotely interested in babies - had scooped up the blind and hairless ratlets and taken them home to the East Gate Lookout Tower. He had loved them as his own; he had fed them, picked off their fleas, worried about them as they first went out scavenging alone, and recently he had begun to teach them the basic skills of a Message Rat. They were his whole life - they were the bright and starry future of the Message Rat Service. And now they were gone. Stanley dropped down from the window, utterly desolate.

"Ouch! Watch it, Dadso!" a young rat squeaked.

"Robert!" gasped Stanley. "Oh, thank goodness . . ." He felt quite overcome.

"You're heavy, man. You're squashing my tail," said Bo gruffly.

"Sorry." Stanley shifted his weight with a groan. He was getting too old to fall a hundred feet and not notice it.

"You all right, Da?" asked Flo.

"Where you been?" This from Jo.

"Oh Da! We thought it had got you." A hug from Mo - always the emotional one - made Stanley's world feel right once more.

The five rats sat in a despondent line on the Outside Path, which was no more than a narrow ledge below the East Gate Lookout Tower. Stanley recounted the events of the past few hours.

"It's bad, Da, isn't it?" Mo said after a while.

"Doesn't look good," said Stanley gloomily. "But, according to that Alchemist chappie, we'll be all right here - we're outside the walls. It's all those poor rats trapped in the Castle I worry about." He sighed. "And I'd only just got the Service fully staffed."

"So where to now, Dadso?" asked Bo, kicking his feet impatiently on the stones.

"Nowhere, Robert, unless you want to swim the Moat. We'll sit the night out here and see what the morning brings."

"But it's so cold, Da," said Flo, looking mournfully at the tiny flakes of snow drifting down.

"Not half as cold as it is inside the Castle, Florence," said Stanley severely. "There's a stone missing from the wall a bit farther along. We can spend the night in there. It's good training."

"For what?" moaned Jo.

"For becoming a reliable and effective Message Rat, that's for what, Josephine."

This was met by a barrage of groans. However, the ratlets made no further protests. They were tired, scared and relieved to have Stanley back safe. Led by him they trooped along to the space in the wall and, reverting to babyhood, they fell into a rat pile - exactly as they had been when Stanley had found them - and resigned themselves to an uncomfortable night. When Stanley was sure they were settled he said, very reluctantly, "There's something I have to do. I won't be long. Stay there and don't move an inch."

"We won't," they chorused sleepily.

Stanley set off along the Outside Path toward Jannit Maarten's boatyard, muttering grumpily to himself.

"You really should know better by now, Stanley. Do not mess with Wizards. Or Princesses. Not even just one Princess. One Princess is as bad as at least half a dozen Wizards. Every time you get involved with a Princess or a Wizard - especially the Heaps - you end up on some wild goose chase in the middle of the night when you could be tucked up nice and warm in your bed. When will you ever learn?"

Stanley scurried along the Outside Path. Soon he was having second, third and fourth thoughts about the wisdom of his journey.

"What are you doing, you stupid rat? You don't have to go off and find yet another no-good Heap. You never actually said you would, did you? In fact, you didn't actually have a chance to say anything, did you, Stanley? And why was that? Because if you just cast your mind back, mouse-brain, that no-good Heap's own mother tried to kill you. Have you forgotten already? And in case you hadn't noticed, it's freezing cold, this path is a death trap, goodness knows what is going on in the Castle and you really shouldn't leave the ratlets outside on their own; aren't they just as important as a bunch of troublesome Wizards ohmysaintedauntiedoriswhatisthat?"

A roar - wild and rough-edged - broke through the silence. This time it was close. Too close. In fact, it sounded as though it was right above him. Stanley shrank back against the wall and looked up. There was nothing to see but the deep, dark night sky, scattered with a few clouded stars. The Castle Walls reared up high behind him and above them, Stanley knew, were the tall, thin houses that backed onto the Moat. But without even a glimmer of light the rat could see nothing.

As Stanley waited, wondering if it was safe to move, he realized that he could see something. On the still surface of the Moat, just around the next bend, a faint reflection of light caught his keen rat eye. It was, he figured, coming from the very place he was heading: Jannit Maarten's Boatyard. The glimmer of light raised Stanley's spirits considerably. He decided to carry on with his mission - even if it did involve a no-good Heap.

A few minutes later Stanley leaped lightly down from the Outside Path and ran across the boatyard, dodging between the tangle of boat clutter that inhabited Jannit's yard, heading for the wonderful sight of a lighted window. Granted it belonged to the Port barge and was, strictly speaking, a lighted porthole, but Stanley didn't care. Light was light, and where there was light there was life.

The hatch to the cabin-with-the-porthole was locked and barred but that did not deter a Message Rat. Stanley bounded onto the cabin roof, found the air vent - an open tube shaped like an umbrella handle - and ped in.

Nicko had never heard Jannit Maarten scream before. It was actually more of a loud squeak - short, sharp and very high-pitched. It didn't sound like it had come from Jannit at all.

"Rat, rat!" she yelled. She leaped to her feet, picked up a nearby wrench - there was always a wrench near Jannit - and smashed it down. Stanley's split-second reactions were severely tested. He leaped aside just in time and, waving his arms in the air, he squeaked, "Message Rat!"

Wrench raised for another swipe, Jannit stared at the rat that had suddenly landed in the middle of the table, only just missing the lighted candle. Stanley watched the wrench with particular interest. Everyone else around the table watched Stanley.

Jannit Maarten - wiry, with a wind-browned face like a walnut and iron-gray hair in a sailor's pigtail - was a woman who looked like she meant business. Very slowly she put the wrench down. Stanley, who had been holding his breath, exhaled with relief. He looked up at the expectant faces surrounding him and began to enjoy the moment. This was what Message Ratting was all about - the drama, the excitement, the attention, the power.

Stanley surveyed his audience with the commanding, confident eye of a rat that knows it will not, for the next few minutes at least, be swiped at with a wrench. He looked at the recipient of his message, Nicko Heap, just to check it was really him. It was. He'd recognize Nicko's tiny sailor's plaits woven into his straw-colored hair anywhere. And those Heap bright green eyes too. Next to him was Rupert Gringe, his short hair shining carroty in the candlelight, and for once he was not scowling. In fact, Rupert actually had a smile on his face while he looked at the slightly plump young woman sitting close beside him. Stanley knew her, all right. She was the skipper of the Port barge. She had red hair too, a good deal more of it than Rupert Gringe. And she too had a smile, and in the candlelight she even looked quite friendly, although Stanley was not convinced. The last time he'd seen her she's hurled a rotten tomato at him. Better than a wrench, though . . .

Nicko cut through the rat's musings. "Who's it for then?" he said.

"What?"

"The message. Who is it for?"

"Ahem." Stanley cleared his throat and stood up on his back legs. "Please note that due to the current, er . . . situation . . . and circumstances pertaining thereto, this is not delivered in Standard Message Form. Therefore no responsibility can be accepted for the accuracy or otherwise of this message. A fee is not payable but a box for contributions toward the new drains at the East Gate Lookout Tower may be found at the Message Rat Office door. Please note that no money is kept in the box overnight."

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