"Is that it?" asked Nicko. "You came to tell us about the drains?"
"What drains?" said Stanley, whose mouth so often ran ahead of his thoughts. And then, when his thoughts caught up, he said rather snappily, "No, of course I didn't."
"I know which rat you are," said Nicko suddenly. "You're Stanley, aren't you?"
"Why do you say that?" asked Stanley suspiciously.
Nicko just grinned. "Thought so. So, Stanley, who is the message for?"
"Nicko Heap," Stanley replied, feeling slightly offended, although he was not sure why.
"Me?" Nicko seemed surprised.
"If that is you, yes."
"Of course it's me. What's the message?"
Stanley took a deep breath. "Find Nicko - Nicko Heap, at Jannit's boatyard. Tell him what's happening. Tell him where we are. Please."
Nicko went pale. "Who sent it?"
Stanley sat down on a pile of papers. "Well, I wouldn't go running messages like this for just anyone, you know - especially given the present, er . . . situation. However, I do consider that I am, to some extent at least, not a mere messenger but operating in the capacity of a personal representative of - oof!"
Nicko's finger jabbed the rat's ample stomach. "Ouch! That hurt," protested Stanley. "There is no need for violence, you know. I only came here out of the goodness of my heart."
Nicko leaned across the table and stared eyeball to eyeball with the rat. "Stanley," he said, "if you don't tell me who sent the message right now I shall personally throttle you. Got that?"
"Yep. Okey dokey. Got that."
"So who sent it?"
"Yes. Princess Jenna."
Nicko looked at his companions, the light from the single candle in the center of the table throwing glancing shadows across their worried faces. For a few minutes Stanley's antics had distracted them from what was happening outside - but no longer. Now all their worries for their families and friends in the Castle came flooding back.
"Okay," said Nicko slowly. "So . . . tell me. Where is Jenna? Who is 'we'? Are they safe? When did she send the message? How did you - "
It was Stanley's turn to interrupt. "Look," he said wearily. "It's been a long day. I've seen some nasty stuff. I'll tell you about it, but a cup of tea and biscuit first would work wonders."
Maggie went to get up but Rupert stopped her. "You've had a long day too," he said. "I'll do it."
Silence fell, broken only by the gentle hiss of the little stove - and the sudden, terrifying roar of something outside, deep in the Darkenesse.
Chapter 37 Brothers
The night wore on in the room behind the Big Red Door, its occupants sleeping fitfully on the odd assortment of cushions and rugs. They were rudely awoken twice by Thunder - who was not named just for the stormy color of his coat - but after protests and much fanning of the air, everyone managed finally to drift off once again.
Jenna had appropriated her old box bed in the cupboard, which still had the rough, threadbare blankets of her childhood. They were very different from the heirlooms of fine linen and soft furs that covered her four-poster bed in the Palace, but Jenna loved her old blankets and box bed as much as she ever did. She kneeled on the bed and peered out the tiny window for some minutes, looking up at the stars and down at the river far below, just as she had always done before she went to sleep. But the combination of the Dark of the Moon - which she sleepily remembered Aunt Zelda explaining to her one night on the Marram Marshes - with the thick, snowy clouds that covered most of the stars meant she could not see much at all. Her cupboard was colder than she remembered but before long Jenna too was asleep, curled up on the bed (which she had to be, because the bed was too short for her now), covered in the rough blankets, her fine fur-lined Princess cloak and her newly acquired Witch cloak. It was an odd combination but it kept her warm.
Septimus and Marcellus took turns through the night watching the door - two hours watching, two hours sleeping. When at about four in the morning the Darke Fog rolled down There and Back Again Row and pushed against the Big Red Door, Septimus was on watch. He woke Marcellus and together, on tenderhooks, they watched the door. The door tightened its hinges and long minutes passed, but the Darke Domaine did not get in.
The reason for this was not only Septimus's Magyk; it was also the Big Red Door itself. Benjamin Heap had suffused the Big Red Door with Magykal SafeScreens of his own before he gave it to his son, Silas. It was his way of ensuring that his son and grandchildren would be protected after he had gone. Benjamin's SafeScreens could not stop anything or anyone who had been invited in (like the midwife who had stolen Septimus) but they were pretty good at stopping anything that the Heaps had not invited over the threshold. Benjamin had never told Silas this, for he did not want his son to think that he doubted his Magykal powers - even though he did. But Sarah Heap had guessed long ago.
And so the Darke Domaine began its unrelenting onslaught - just as it was doing in the three other places in the Castle that had protected themselves: the Wizard Tower, the Hermetic Chamber - and Igor's own secret SafeChamber in Gothyk Grotto, which, in addition to Igor, contained Marissa, Matt and Marcus. But those behind the Big Red Door were safe for the moment. And when the light of the rising sun began to shine through the dusty mullioned window, Septimus and Marcellus relaxed their guard and fell asleep beside the glowing embers of the fire.
Sarah Heap woke with the sun as she always did. She stirred awkwardly, her neck stiff from the night spent on a threadbare rug with only a rocklike cushion for a pillow. She got up and walked stiffly over to the fire, stepping over Marcellus, and gently placing a pillow beneath Septimus's head. Then she added some logs to the embers and stood, arms wrapped around herself, watching the flames begin to wake. Silently she thanked Silas for all the stores he had laid in: logs neatly stacked under Jenna's bed, blankets, rugs and cushions, two cupboards full of jars of preserved fruit and vegetables, a whole box of dried WizStix, which would become strips of tasty dried fish or meat when reconstituted with the correct Spell (the tiny, sticklike Charm for which Silas had thoughtfully left tucked beside them). Plus, Silas had mended the loo. This had been the bane of Sarah's life when the Heap family had lived there. Plumbing was not one of the Ramblings' strong points and the lavatories - little more than huts perched precariously on the outside walls - were always messing up. But now, at long last, Silas had fixed it. All this, along with a late-night discovery of a WaterGnome hidden in the back of the cupboard, made Sarah think of Silas with wistful affection. She longed to thank him and apologize for all the times she had complained about him disappearing without saying where he was going. But most of all, she wished Silas knew that she was safe.
Sarah got out the WaterGnome and stood it on top of the cupboard where she had found it. She smiled; she could see why Silas had hidden it - it was one of the rude ones. But none the worse for that, Sarah thought, as the Gnome provided a stream of water for the kettle. Water was the thing she had been most worried about - hence the risky trip to the Well Hall. But now, thanks to Silas, they had a reliable supply.
Sarah hung the kettle over the fire and sat to watch it boil, remembering how she used to do this every morning. She had loved those rare moments to herself when all was quiet and peaceful. Of course when the children were very little she often had one or two of them sitting sleepily at her feet, but they were always quiet - and once they were older none of them ever woke up until she banged on the breakfast porridge pan. Sarah remembered how she would take the kettle off the fire just before it began to whistle, brew herself a cup of herb tea and sit quietly watching the sleeping forms strewn around the floor - just as she was doing now. Except, she thought wryly, as Thunder made his presence known in his own special way, she wouldn't have been staring at a fresh pile of horse poop.
Sarah got the shovel, opened the window and launched the steaming pile into the air. She leaned out and breathed in the sharp, fresh morning air, which was dusted with a scent of snow and river mud. Happy memories of MidWinter Feast days with Silas and the children came flooding back - along with a memory of one much less happy day fourteen years ago. She turned and looked at the sleeping form of her youngest son and thought that, whatever happened, he had now at last spent a night in the room he should have grown up in.