"I don't think we should get any closer," he said. "It's not safe."
But Maggie, worried about her boat sinking, didn't think the river was exactly safe either. She pushed the tiller hard to the right - the barge was being particularly contrary - and headed for the landing stage.
Suddenly a ghostly voice drifted across the water.
"Beware, beware. Come no closer. Flee . . . flee this place. This terrible place of doooooooom."
White-faced in the light of the lantern, they looked at each other.
"I told you," said Nicko. "I told you it wasn't safe. We have to go somewhere else."
"All right, all right," snapped Maggie, who no longer had any confidence in her own decisions. "But where? It's got to be close. Supposing everywhere is like this - what do we do then?"
Nicko had been thinking. He knew from Stanley that this was a Darke Domaine. Nicko hadn't taken much notice of his Magyk classes at school - in fact, as soon as he was old (and brave) enough he had cut them to go to the boatyard - but he did still remember a few Magykal rhymes. The ones he thought of were:
A Darke DomaineMust remainWithin the bounds of water.
The Castle Walls are tall and stout,They are built to keep the Darkenesse out.But if the Darkenesse grows within,The Castle Walls will keep it in.
"Everywhere won't be like this," said Nicko in answer to Maggie's question. "This Darke stuff is stopped either by the water or by the Castle Walls. That's why we were all right in the boatyard, because we're outside the walls. So I think if we go up to Sally Mullin's place we'll be okay; she's outside the Castle Walls. We can tie up at the New Quay just below Sally's pontoon and we'll be safe. Then Rupert and I can find another boat. Okay?"
Maggie nodded. It was as okay as anything was likely to be right then - which was not, in her opinion, saying a lot. But she and Jannit set the sails and turned the Port barge out into the river.
It was then that they discovered that the rudder was jammed. The barge had not escaped unscathed from being grounded; it now insisted on turning steadily right, which was probably why she had hit the Beaks, Maggie realized. The barge now refused to turn left up to the New Quay. To everyone's dismay, it drifted inexorably into the Raven's Rock Run until it was taken by the reverse current and pulled through the deep, choppy waters at the base of the rock so that it was now heading rapidly away from the Castle. Desperately they tried to steer out of the Run using the barge oars as rudders, to no avail. The Pig Tub made a beeline for the Forest and as they neared the overhanging banks tangled with trees, they began to hear the frightening grunts and screeches of the Forest night creatures. But at least, Nicko pointed out, they could hear something normal. It was better than the awful silence of the Castle punctuated by that weird roar.
They were lucky. Once more they ran aground, this time on a shingle bar some yards out from the bank, which left a comfortable stretch of water between the barge and the Forest. Maggie, at her insistence, kept watch. "I'm skipper," she said firmly when Rupert objected. "Besides, you three will be busy working on the rudder tomorrow. You need to sleep."
Nicko, Rupert and Jannit spent most of the following day fixing the rudder. It would have been a quick and easy job in the boatyard, but without the right tools it took much longer. It was also much wetter and colder than it would have been in the boatyard, and even Maggie's steady supply of hot chocolate did not stop tempers fraying by the afternoon.
The winter sun was low in the sky when the repaired Port barge finally floated off the shingle bank and headed upriver toward the New Quay. As the barge rounded Raven's Rock they saw the Darkened Castle in daylight for the first time. It was a shock. At night the only visible sign of the Darke Domaine was the absence of the normal nighttime lights, but the daylight showed the full scale of the disaster that had overwhelmed the Castle. A great black dome of cloud squatted within the Castle Walls, obscuring the usual cheerful sight of the higgledy-piggledy rooftops and chimneys and the occasional turret or tower that would greet any boat as it rounded the bend at Raven's Rock. It was, thought Nicko, like a dark pillow pushed onto the face of an innocent sleeper. But still, shining above the Fog - just - like a brilliant beacon of hope, was the Wizard Tower. Wreathed in its shimmering Magykal haze, it sent out a defiant blaze of indigo and purple. Nicko and Rupert exchanged strained smiles - all was not yet lost.
As they drew near to the New Quay they saw the welcoming lights of Sally Mullin's Tea and Ale House glowing in the gathering twilight and Nicko knew that he was right about the Darke Domaine. Sally Mullin's was safe. As they got closer, they saw through the steamed-up windows of the long, low wooden building that the place was packed with those lucky enough to have escaped and their spirits lifted - they were no longer the only ones.
But as the Port barge drew alongside the New Quay, a fearsome roar from the Castle - louder than they had ever heard before - sent the hairs on the backs of their necks prickling. Once more Rupert and Nicko exchanged glances, but this time without a trace of a smile. There was no need for words; they both knew what the other was thinking - how could anyone survive inside that?
Chapter 39 Descent
Night drew on in the room behind the Big Red Door. The red glow from the embers in the fire threw a warm light over the sleeping figures swathed in blankets. Outside a northeast wind began to blow and rattle the windowpane. One of Sarah's dreams began to turn into a nightmare.
"Ethel!" she gasped, sitting bolt upright.
"Ah! You all right, Mum?" asked Simon, who was taking his turn on watch and had been drifting into a doze.
Sarah wasn't sure. "I dreamed . . . I dreamed I was being suffocated. And then poor little Ethel . . . oh, Ethel."
Simon was suddenly on his feet. A tiny tendril of smoky Darkenesse was curling in under Benjamin Heap's door.
"Wake up! Everyone wake up!" he yelled.
Thunder whinnied loudly and snorted. Instantly everyone was awake.
Septimus made for the door, intending to put some kind of Emergency Stop on it. But Marcellus grabbed him.
"Do not touch it, Apprentice! It is too dangerous - and too late."
Septimus stopped. Another wisp of Darkenesse puffed in around one of the hinges - it was indeed too late.
Jenna appeared at her cupboard door, hair awry, witch's cloak up to her chin against the cold. "What is it?" she asked sleepily, half knowing already what the answer was.
"It's coming in," said Septimus. As if on cue, a spurt of Darkenesse puffed through the keyhole with such force that it looked as though it had been blown in with a pair of bellows.
"We must leave at once," said Marcellus. "Sarah, is everything ready?"
"Yes," said Sarah sadly.
As part of the previous day's preparations, a huge coil of rope lay on the floor below the window. One end of the rope was tied around the central mullion of the window; it then snaked back across the room, looped around the base of the huge stone chimney that went up through the middle of the room, where it was secured with an impressive knot. Sarah pulled open the window and a freezing blast of air blew in, taking her breath away. It was not a night to be out, let alone a night to be climbing nearly a hundred feet down an exposed north wall, but they had no choice. With Jenna's help Sarah picked up the coil of rope and together they heaved it out the window into the night. They jumped back and watched the loop around the mullion tighten as the rope hurtled down to the river far below.
Simon went over to Thunder. "Good-bye, boy," he whispered. "I'm sorry . . . so sorry." He put his hand in his pocket and felt for his last peppermints. Thunder nuzzled at his hand and then rubbed his nose against Simon's shoulder. Breaking his promise to Lucy not to do any more Darke stuff, Simon did a Sleep Spell laced with just enough Darke to give Thunder a chance of surviving. As the horse settled down onto Sarah's best rug and his eyes closed, Simon gently placed a blanket over him.
The previous day, when they were making plans to escape, they had decided to leave in order of their importance to the safety of the Castle. That had made Simon third to last - Sarah had been next and then Lucy had been last, but Simon had insisted on going last. There was no way he was going to leave Lucy and his mother alone to face the Darke. As Septimus and Marcellus stood at the window, Simon sat beside Thunder and wondered if they would be spending their time together in the Darke Domaine.