The thin strip of mud between the sheer walls of the Ramblings and the broad band of the deep, cold river was a temporary refuge only. They knew that as the tide came in it would slowly disappear. They gazed longingly over to the safety of the opposite bank. Far away to the right, flickering through the bare branches of the winter trees, were the distant lights of a farmhouse. Upstream to the left was glow of firelight in the downstairs window of the Grateful Turbot Tavern. Both were unreachable.

"We'll have to walk down to Old Dock," said Septimus. "See if we can find a boat there."

"One that isn't half sunk already," said Jenna.

"Do you have any better ideas?" demanded Septimus.

"Stop it, you two," said Sarah. "I don't think anyone does have any better ideas - do we?"

There was silence.

"Old Dock it is," said Sarah. "Follow me."

Sarah led the cold, tired group along the mud. But whereas Stanley, with the lightness of a rat, had scampered over the top of the mud, it was not so simple for humans. Their feet sank deep into the goop and they stubbed their toes on hidden rocks and tripped over the empty outhauls. As they struggled on through the freezing mud, they saw countless open windows from which abandoned knotted sheets and makeshift ropes dangled - and they now understood why all the boats had gone. Even the floating pontoons had been unhitched and pressed into service; there was nothing left afloat on their side of the river.

Finally they arrived at the Underflow, an underground stream that ran from below the Castle. Sarah, not realizing where she was, took a step forward into the dark and fell into deep, fast-flowing water.

"Agh!" Sarah gasped with shock as she was swept out into the river.

There was a loud splash and a scream from Lucy. Simon surfaced in the river, spluttering - then he turned and swam into the darkness after Sarah.

"Simon!" yelled Lucy. "Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaagh! Simon!"

Jenna, Septimus, and Marcellus stood, shocked, on the muddy bank of the Underflow. They stared into the night but could see nothing. Lucy stopped screaming, and the sounds of Simon swimming receded. Chilled by the freezing wind, they listened in silence to a few faint splashes coming from somewhere in the middle of the river.

Chapter 40 Annie

Sally Mullin had insisted that Nicko take her new boat, Annie.

"I hope she gives you as much luck as my Muriel did," she had said. "Just don't turn her into canoes this time."

Nicko had promised. Annie - a wide, generous boat with a cozy cabin - was far too good to turn into anything else.

After helping Jannit and Maggie to safely dock the Pig Tub, Nicko and Rupert had not set off until way past midnight. They sailed up the river, heading toward the Ramblings on the north side of the Castle. It was slow progress at first because the blustery northeast wind was against them, but they followed the river around as it hugged the Castle walls, and slowly Annie's position to the wind altered and she picked up speed.

It was a miserable journey. The eerie sight of the desolate, Darkened Castle made both Rupert and Nicko doubt that they would find anyone safe in the Heaps' room at the top of the Ramblings. And when, once again, the terrifying roar echoed across the river, they began to dread what they would find.

"What is it?" Rupert whispered.

Nicko shook his head. Right then he didn't want to know.

As they sailed toward Old Dock, a knot began to tighten in Nicko's stomach. This was the place where it was first possible to see the Heaps' tiny, arched mullion window at the very top of the Ramblings. Nicko always looked up when he passed - and felt a small tug of nostalgia for times gone by - but now he did not dare. He kept his eyes fixed on the dark water of the river because every moment he did not look was another moment of hope. A quick flurry of tiny snowflakes blew into his eyes and Nicko rubbed them away, glancing up as he did so. There was no light. The sheer wall of the Ramblings reared up like a cliff face and, just like a cliff face, it was totally dark. A wave of desolation swept over Nicko; he slumped down and stared at the tiller. It was then that he heard a splash.

"Just a duck," said Rupert in response to Nicko's questioning glance.

"Big duck," said Nicko. He stared toward the Ramblings side where the splash had come from, for some reason his hopes beginning to rise. Then came another splash and a scream cut through the air.

"Lucy!" Rupert gasped. "That's Lucy." No one screamed like his sister.

Nicko had already turned Annie toward the splashing. Rupert took the boat lamp out from under its cover and played its light across the water, searching.

"I can see her!" he shouted. "She's in the water. Lucy! Lucy! We're coming!" He threw the ladder over the side.

Beside the Underflow the stranded group heard shouts from the river and saw a light suddenly appear from the darkness. In the wildly swaying beam of light they saw Sarah being pulled from the water and then Simon's head bobbing at the foot of the ladder. A curse traveled across the water, followed by a voice saying, "It's your dingbat brother."

"Which one?" came the reply that they all recognized as belonging to Nicko.

"What does he mean, which one?" muttered Septimus.

It took a few trips in Annie's coracle to pick up Jenna, Septimus, Lucy and Marcellus. But eventually everyone was on board, a little wetter than they would have liked, but not - as Jenna pointed out - as wet as they would have been if Nicko hadn't shown up.

Nicko could not stop grinning as he hugged his brother - not the dingbat one - and his sister.

"Did Stanley tell you where we were?" asked Jenna, gratefully wrapping herself in one of the many blankets that Sally Mullin had provided.

"Eventually," said Nicko. "That rat does go on. Anyway, we decided we'd sail around and wait below. I figured sooner or later you'd look out and see us, Jen." He smiled. "Seem to remember you were always gazing out of the window when you were little."

"Good old Stanley," said Jenna. "I do hope his ratlets are okay."

"His what?"

Jenna's answer was cut short by another bleak roar echoing across the water.

"His - oh Nicko, Sep, oh - look at that . . . what is it?"

Illuminated by the glow from the Wizard Tower SafeShield, a monstrous shape could be seen inside the Darke Fog.

"It's massive . . ." Jenna breathed.

The creature opened its great mouth and sent another bellow across the river.

"It's . . . a dragon," gasped Nicko.

"About ten times bigger than Spit Fyre," said Septimus, who was feeling extremely worried about his dragon.

"It would eat Spit Fyre for breakfast," said Nicko.

"Nicko, don't!" protested Jenna.

But Nicko had voiced the very thing that was worrying Septimus.

They stared across the water, watching the monster. It appeared to be trying out its wings - of which it had six. It rose a little into the air and then fell back with what sounded like a roar of frustration.

"Six wings. A Darke dragon," muttered Septimus.

"That's not good," said Nicko, shaking his head.

Marcellus joined them. "Things are worse than we feared. No one is safe in the Castle with that thing on the loose. How fast can this boat go, Nicko?"

Nicko shrugged. "Depends on the wind. But it's blowing up a bit. We can get to the Port not long after dawn if we're lucky."

"The Port?" asked Marcellus, puzzled. He glanced at Septimus. "You have not told him, Apprentice?"

"Told him what?" asked Nicko suspiciously.

"That we're going to Bleak Creek," said Septimus.

"Bleak Creek?"

"Yes. Sorry, Nik. We have to get there. Fast."

"Jeez, Sep. Isn't it bad enough for you here? You want more Darke stuff?"

Septimus shook his head. "We have to go. It's the only hope we have to stop what's happening here."

"Well, you're not taking Mum," said Nicko.

Sarah's bat ears were working well. Her head appeared in the lighted hatch. "Not taking Mum where?"

"Bleak Creek," said Nicko.

"If that's where Septimus needs to go, then that's where I'll go too," Sarah said. "I don't want you wasting any time on me, Nicko. Just do what Septimus asks you - and Marcellus too."

Nicko looked surprised. "Okay, Mum. Whatever you say."

They sailed past the reassuringly normal lights of the Grateful Turbot Tavern and then Annie's mast scraped under the One Way Bridge, setting Nicko's teeth on edge. As they began to round the first bend, everyone gathered on deck to catch a last glimpse of the Castle. The only sound was the creaking of Annie's ropes and the swash of the water as she sailed briskly along. Her passengers were grimly silent. They looked back at the dark shape of the Castle that had been their home and thought about all the people left behind. Lucy wondered if her mother and father were still alive - How long could you survive in a Darke trance? Simon had told her he'd once been in a trance for forty days and had been okay at the end of it. But Lucy knew Simon was different. She knew he'd practiced all kinds of Darke things, even though he didn't like to talk about it. But her parents didn't have a clue about stuff like that. Lucy imagined them collapsed outside the gatehouse, snow covering them as they slowly froze. She stifled a sob and rushed below. Simon went after her.