After some minutes, breathless and buzzing with excitement, they swooped up through the Darke Fog for a brief consultation. Hovering on the very edge of the dome of the Darke Domaine, buffeted by the breeze, They breathed in fresh night air untainted by the Darke. Above Them shone a glitter dust of stars and below them the tendrils of Fog waved like seaweed in an ocean current. They felt exhilarated, on top of the world.
But far below the Darke dragon still lurked. They decided it was time to lure the monster out of his Domaine. They figured that the dragon was now so frantic to get hold of Them that it would follow Them anywhere. They took a deep breath of clear air, then dropped down into the Fog once more. They saw the six blazing red pinpoints of Their quarry's eyes - and headed straight for them.
Taking care that the Darke dragon always had Them in his line of sight, They began a cat-and-mouse game with Merrin and his monster, venturing temptingly near for swipes of the scimitar claws - but never quite near enough to make contact. Once or twice the claws came a little too close for comfort and They felt the breeze ruffle Their hair as the blades flew past Their head. And so, taunting and teasing, parrying and feinting like a skilled swordsman, They lured the Darke dragon onward and upward - with no resistance from its whimpering pilot.
They shot out of the Darke Fog like a bullet. Focused only on the tempting barb of Their tail, which was less than a wing's breadth in front of its nose spine, the Darke dragon followed. It hit the cold clear air like a wall. Stunned, it stopped dead. For the first time in its short and nasty life it was without a Darke safety net - there was nothing but the cold black river running below. Its pilot opened his eyes, looked down and screamed.
Feeling its powers begin to trickle away, the Darke dragon threw back its head and bellowed with distress. Released from the muffling effect of the Darke Domaine the noise was loud and terrible. It sounded out across the countryside and sent people for miles around ping for cover under their beds. Far below, in Sally Mullin's Tea and Ale House, Sarah Heap and Sally Mullin looked anxiously out into the night.
"Oh, Sally," whispered Sarah. "It's so awful . . ."
Sally put her arm around Sarah's shoulders. There was nothing she could say.
Outside, beside the newly returned Annie, Simon Heap was pacing the pontoon with Marcellus Pye. Simon had been telling Marcellus that he had decided to go into the Castle. He had so much to offer, so much knowledge of the Darke. At last he had an opportunity to put it to use for good - and that was what he intended to do. But Marcellus had not heard a word Simon said. His last sight of Septimus in the little coracle spinning into the whirlpool haunted him; it played over and over in his head and he could not escape it. The more he thought about it, the more Marcellus doubted Septimus had survived. He had led his dearest Apprentice to his death. Marcellus felt utterly wretched.
The Darke dragon's roar cut through his thoughts. Marcellus looked up to see Spit Fyre, illuminated by the lights shining from Sally Mullin's Tea and Ale House, dropping out of the night sky. The dragon had come to exact revenge and Marcellus didn't care. He deserved it.
Sally Mullin saw Marcellus looking up into the sky. "Some-thing's going on up there," she whispered.
"I wish Simon would come inside," Sarah said. "I wish . . ." But right then Sarah wished for far too many things to even begin, although at the top of the list was a wish to see Septimus again. To take her mind off the hundred awful things that Sarah had imagined might have happened to Septimus, she watched Marcellus.
"He's a bit of a drama queen, isn't he?" Sally whispered mis-chievously, hoping to cheer Sarah up.
Right then Marcellus did look rather dramatic. The light from the lamps in Sally's long line of windows caught the gold embellishments on his cloak as he raised his arms up in the air, hands outstretched. They saw him suddenly spin around and shout something to Simon, who came running.
"What is going on?" muttered Sally. "Oh! Oh my goodness. Sarah! Sarah! It's your Septimus. Look!"
Sarah gasped. Hurtling toward the river and - she was convinced - to certain death, was her youngest son on his dragon. And when she saw the horrific shape of the Darke monster that was chasing Them, Sarah screamed so loudly that Sally's ears rang. Sarah and Sally watched the Darke dragon ping like a hawk after a sparrow, its razor claws poised and ready to grab, and when it drew so close to Spit Fyre that it must surely tear the dragon and its rider to pieces any moment, Sarah could bear it no longer - she gave a cry of despair and buried her head in her hands.
A few feet above the surface of the river the Synchronized pair suddenly - as planned - changed course, but in the moment They slowed, the longest claw on the Darke dragon's right foot made contact with Their head. Sally suppressed a scream. It would not do Sarah any good right now. She watched Spit Fyre reel back, wings frantically beating the air. Seconds later a massive plume of river water rose into the air.
The Darke dragon hit the surface and sank like a house.
Sally Mullin gave a great whoop of excitement. "You can look now," she told Sarah as Spit Fyre flew back shakily just above the surface of the river. "They're all right." Sarah burst into tears. It had all been too much.
Sally comforted Sarah while keeping one eye on events outside. When she saw Septimus jump into the middle of the fast-flowing river she decided not to tell Sarah.
* * *
The freezing water took Septimus's breath away. He swam quickly toward Merrin, who was flailing about in the water, yelling, "Help me! Help me! I can't swim! Help!" This was not strictly true, for Merrin could doggie paddle a few yards, although not enough to reach safety from the middle of the river.
Septimus was a strong swimmer and after the night exercises in the Young Army, swimming in the river did not frighten him. He grasped Merrin around the chest from behind and began the slow swim to the safety of Sally Mullin's pontoon. Above him Spit Fyre, dripping blood from a deep tear on the top of his head, circled anxiously, but on instructions from Septimus he flew off and landed on the wide stones of the New Quay. The current in the river was sweeping Septimus past Sally Mullin's pontoon and he knew better than to fight it. He swam diagonally across, heading always for the bank, with Merrin a dead weight in his arms.
Simon watched anxiously. He reflected that not so long ago he would have been pleased to see his youngest brother struggling in the icy river, and he felt ashamed of his old self. He saw where the current was taking Septimus and his burden, so he set off down to the next easy landfall, the New Quay where Spit Fyre had just landed. As Simon jogged down the path he heard a yell from the water followed by some wild splashing. He raced to the quay and saw Septimus struggling with Merrin some yards away - the exact distance, in fact, that Merrin could swim.
Merrin appeared to have miraculously recovered and was now pushing Septimus below the water. Septimus struggled, but the delicate fabric of his Darke Disguise was torn and ragged and it was no match for the power of the Two-Faced Ring, which strengthened tenfold any attempt at murder. As Merrin pushed the spluttering and fighting Septimus once more beneath the water, Simon dove in.
With the power of the Two-Faced Ring - and Merrin himself - fully occupied in drowning Septimus, Simon's old-fashioned punch to Merrin's head had the desired effect. Merrin let go of Septimus, took in a huge mouthful of water and began to sink. Septimus looked at his rescuer, shocked.
"You okay?" asked Simon.
Septimus nodded. "Yeah. Thanks, Simon."
Merrin gave a gurgle and slipped beneath the water.
"I'll get him," gasped Simon, teeth chattering as the icy cold began to take effect. "You get to the steps."
But Septimus did not trust Merrin. He swam alongside Simon as he towed Merrin back and when they reached the New Quay, Septimus helped him haul Merrin out of the water and up the steps. They lay Merrin facedown on the stones like a dead fish.
"We'll have to get the water out," said Simon. "I've seen them do it at the Port." He kneeled beside Merrin, placed his hands on Merrin's ribcage and began to push gently but firmly. Merrin coughed faintly. Then he coughed again, spluttered and suddenly retched up a huge amount of river water. Something went clink onto the stone. At Septimus's feet lay a small silver disc with a raised central boss. Trying not to think about where it had just come from, Septimus picked it up. It lay heavy in his palm, glinting in the light from the single torch burning on the quay.