"Yeess?" Marcellus knew what was coming.

"I want to find the most effective one. I shall go and bring Alther back."

Simon was horrified. "You can't go to the Darke Halls!"

"Yes, I can. I was going there anyway before all this happened."

Simon looked very concerned. "Septimus, be careful. That's why I wrote to you - apart from saying sorry for, um . . . trying to kill you. Which I am. I really am. You know that, don't you?"

"Yes, I think I do," said Septimus. "Thanks."

"Well, the last thing I want is for my little brother to get enmeshed with the Darke. It pulls you in. It changes you. It's a terrible thing. And the Darke Halls are the Darkest place of all."

"Simon, I don't want to go, but that's where Alther is," said Septimus. "And if there's a chance he can help then I want to take it. Anyway, I promised Alice I'd bring him back. And a promise is a promise."

Simon threw in his last card. "But what would Mum say?"

"Say about what?" Sarah - who had ears like a bat when it came to her children discussing her - called out from the other side of the room.

"Nothing, Mum," Simon and Septimus chorused in reply.

In the shadows of the bookshelves, Marcellus produced his pocket version of the almanac section of his book, I, Marcellus, and turned to the chapter headed Portal Calculations: Coordinates and Compass Points.

Night fell. Septimus Called yet again for Spit Fyre, although he now no longer expected his dragon to answer. The empty silence that followed his Call upset Septimus, but he tried not to let it show.

Sarah cooked up another stew, helped by Lucy, who wanted to know how to make a stew that was actually edible. After dinner Septimus, Simon and Marcellus returned to the bookshelves and, fortified by Sarah's stew, finished the first set of calculations, which showed where the Portal to the Darke Halls was - give or take half a mile. No one was very surprised at the result.

The evening drew on and a northeast wind began to blow up. It shook the windowpane and sent icy drafts into the room. The occupants wrapped themselves in blankets and settled down for the night. Soon the room behind the Big Red Door fell quiet.

Shortly after midnight, on the other side of the Big Red Door, a Thing arrived. It regarded the door with interest. It placed its ragged hands on the shiny red wood and winced as they touched the Camouflaged Magyk that covered the surface. Unnoticed by Marcellus - who was meant to be keeping watch but had actually dozed off - the door shuddered slightly and tightened its hinges.

The Thing sloped off down the corridor, muttering Darkely to itself.

Chapter 38 The Pig Tub

Nicko had set off to rescue Jenna and her companions from the Ramblings as soon as Stanley had left. He had not wanted to take the Port barge but he'd been outnumbered - even Jannit had agreed with Rupert and Maggie. She had told him that the Heaps were not the only ones to need rescuing; there would be others, surely, and they must take the biggest boat they could. Besides, what else did they have that was suitable? It was the depths of winter. Most of their boats were out of the water and sitting on props in the boatyard. Nicko had agreed reluctantly but before long he was regretting his decision. The Port barge - or the Pig Tub, as he soon began to refer to it - was nothing but trouble.

Right from the beginning progress had not been easy. They had to go the long way around because, for the Port barge, the Moat was not navigable past the boatyard. Added to that, the wind was against them and the long, unwieldy boat, which could not easily sail in the narrow confines of the Moat, needed to be poled along by Rupert and Nicko. This involved them standing on either side of the barge, pushing long barge-poles through the water. Progress was made a little easier by the falling tide, which was flowing their way, but it was still painfully slow and gave them plenty of time to stare at the Darkened Castle.

"It's like everyone has . . . gone," Maggie whispered to Rupert, not liking to say "died," which was what she meant. She didn't see how anyone trapped in the Castle could survive and thought that the sooner she and Rupert got away to the Port, the better.

Nicko had pushed the oar through the water with all his might, propelling the barge inch by frustrating inch toward Raven's Rock, longing for the moment when they were out in the wide river with the wind in their sails. And then, just before the Moat joined the river, they ran aground on the Mump - the notorious mudbank at the entrance to the Moat. Nicko couldn't believe it.

Despite desperate efforts with the grounding poles, made specially to push a barge off a mudbank, nothing they could do would shift the "stupid Pig Tub idiot boat," as Nicko put it. She was stuck fast.

Maggie was horribly embarrassed. A skipper going aground was hard to live down. At least she did not have a boat full of passengers and livestock with whom she would be marooned for six interminable hours, enduring their complaints, moans, barks and brays with no means of escape. With any luck, no one would get to hear of this. And Port barges were made to sit on mud, so there was no harm done.

But for Nicko and Rupert, there was harm done. They stared disconsolately over the side at the thick, muddy water, knowing that every minute marooned on the mudbank meant another minute of danger for Jenna, Sarah, Septimus and Lucy (they had forgotten about Marcellus, and neither of them cared if Simon was in danger). Although neither said it, Nicko and Rupert had no idea if they were even still alive. All they had was hope, which faded as the tide fell.

And then they had nothing to do but sit and stare at the Castle - and try not to think about what creature could be making the spine-chilling roar that echoed across the Walls every now and then and made the hairs on the backs of their necks stand on end. The only consolation was that, from where they were stranded, they could now see the indigo and purple glow of what Nicko told Rupert must be the Wizard Tower SafeShield.

At midnight, down in the Port, the tide turned. Salt water began to creep into the empty gullies in the sand and it began to rise once more in the sleeping harbors and push its way back up the river. At about three in the morning the Port barge shifted. To the accompaniment of another spine-chilling roar from inside the Castle, Nicko and Rupert got out the grounding poles and pushed with all their strength, knowing that this time they would get free. Ten minutes later they were sailing - slowly - toward the river. According to Jannit they were a little too close to Raven's Rock; Maggie pushed the huge tiller across to the right, but the boat seemed sluggish - and as they sailed beneath Raven's Rock they hit something.

Jannit knew at once that they'd hit one of the Beaks - a line of small rocks that came out from Raven's Rock and were not visible after midtide. Maggie was distraught. It didn't help that Jannit had said she'd told her they were going too close and that Maggie had snapped she knew that, thank you, Jannit.

Rupert and Nicko took a spare sail and rushed below. Water was pouring into the cargo hold; Rupert was horrified, but Nicko knew that water coming in often looked worse than it really was. He and Rupert rammed a heavy canvas sail into the gash in the hull and found to their relief that the hole was barely bigger than Rupert's fist. The gush stopped and the red sail darkened as it grew wet. The water still came in but slowly now, dripping from the canvas at a speed that allowed Nicko and Rupert to bail it out with a bucket.

A holed boat must be got to shore as soon as possible. They decided to take the Port barge to the nearest landing stage on the Castle side - no one wanted to risk tying up on the Forest side at night. While Rupert and Nicko poured buckets of river water over the side, Maggie and Jannit, both pulling hard on the unusually stiff tiller, took the barge across to the Palace Landing Stage. As they got closer they saw that the normally brightly lit Palace - a landmark for returning mariners - was utterly dark.

"It's as if it isn't there anymore," whispered Jannit, staring across to where she knew the Palace should be and seeing nothing but blackness.

By the time they drew near to the Palace Landing Stage -  which, unlike anything behind it, was still visible - everyone was having second thoughts about the wisdom of getting any closer. Nicko shone one of the powerful boat lanterns across to the bank but he could see nothing. The light petered out just behind the landing stage on what looked like a fog bank, but different. Fog had a brightness to it and bounced light back. This Fog drew in the light and killed it, thought Nicko with a shiver.

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