Sarah, forget that contrary duck and get out!" Silas was yelling.
Silas and Hildegarde were anxiously hopping up and down on the path outside Sarah's open sitting room window. Maxie was whining fretfully. Inside Sarah was frantically searching for Ethel.
"I can't just abandon her," Sarah shouted back, hurling a pile of wash off the sofa and throwing the cushions onto the floor. "She's hiding because she's frightened."
"Sarah, get out!"
To Hildegarde's dismay, Silas clambered back in through the open window. Maxie went to follow; Hildegarde pulled the protesting wolfhound away.
"Mr. Heap, Mr. Heap!" she called in through the window. "Come back, please! No, Maxie. Down."
Inside the room Silas was propeling a reluctant Sarah toward the open window. "Sarah," he told her, "duck or no duck, it is time to go. Come on."
Sarah gave one last try. "Ethel, dear," she called out, "Ethel, where are you? Come to Mummy!"
An exasperated Silas maneuvered Sarah out the window. "Ethel is a duck, Sarah, and you are not her mummy. You have eight children to be mummy to, and they all need you more than that duck does. Now get out!"
A moment later, much to Hildegarde's relief, both Silas and Sarah were standing beside her. Suddenly the candle flickering in the room next door to Sarah's went out. Quickly Hildegarde reached up to close the window.
"Quack!" A flurry of movement came from underneath a pile of old curtains propped up beside the door and a yellow beak poked out.
Neither Silas, who was distracted by the sudden appearance of Jenna rounding the corner at the far end of the Palace, nor Hildegarde, who was pulling down the window, were quick enough to stop Sarah leaping back inside. Hildegarde was, however, quick enough to stop Silas clambering in after Sarah.
"No, Mr. Heap. Stay here," she said firmly, hanging on to Silas's sleeve just to make sure. "Mistress Heap, please come back, oh no - "
As Sarah scooped Ethel out from the pile of curtains, the door to her sitting room crashed open. A wave of Darkenesse flooded inside, and Sarah screamed a terrified, piercing scream that Jenna would never forget. Sarah clutched her duck to her, mouth wide open in a shriek, and was lost to human sight. As the Darkenesse swirled toward the open window, Hildegarde had no choice but to slam the window shut and put a rapid Anti-Darke on it just to make sure nothing escaped.
"Sarah!" Silas yelled, banging on the window. "Saraaaaaah!"
Jenna arrived, breathless. "Mum!" she gasped. "Where's Mum?"
Unable to speak, Silas pointed into the room.
"Get her out, Dad, get her out!" yelled Jenna.
Silas shook his head. "It's too late. Too late . . ." As he spoke the candle on the little table beside the window guttered and went out. Sarah's sitting room was Darke.
There was a stunned silence on the path outside the window. With reluctance, Hildegarde broke it. "I think," she said softly, "I think we should go now. There's nothing we can do."
"I'm not leaving Mum," said Jenna stubbornly.
"Princess Jenna, I am so sorry, but there is nothing we can do for her now," Hildegarde said gently. "Marcia has instructed that we go outside the Cordon."
"I don't care what Marcia has instructed," snapped Jenna. "I'm not leaving Mum."
Silas put his arm around Jenna. "What Hildegarde says is true, Jenny," he said, using his old baby name for her, something Jenna had not heard for years. "Your mum would not want us to stay here. She would want us - and you in particular - to be safe. Come on."
Jenna shook her head, not trusting herself to speak. But she stopped resisting and allowed Silas to lead her away.
The subdued party walked slowly across the grass, which was becoming dusted with white as the sleet began to turn to snow in the cold of the encroaching night. They headed toward the silent circle of Wizards, scribes and Apprentices holding their purple Cords. Suddenly the sky lit up with a whoosh. Jenna jumped.
"It's all right," said Hildegarde. "It's only the signal to the Cordon to Activate." At that a strange humming sound, like a mass of bees on a warm summer's day, drifted toward them. It was oddly unsettling - bees did not belong to a dark winter's night with snowflakes falling.
Jenna looked back at the Palace - her Palace, as she now thought of it. Every night, since Alther had been Banished, she would walk down the river and talk to the forlorn ghost of Alice Nettles. She and Alice would look up at the Palace and Alice would say how beautiful it looked now that every window had a light in it, and Jenna would agree. But now, like Alther, the lights were gone - every one of her candles snuffed out. It reminded Jenna of how the Palace had been when she had first moved in with Silas and Sarah, but there was one important difference: there had always been one window with a light in it - Sarah's sitting room, where they had sat every evening. Now there was nothing.
All eyes were upon them as Hildegarde, Silas, Jenna and Maxie walked slowly toward the Cordon. Hildegarde chose a spot between two scribes, Partridge and Romilly Badger, who were holding either end of the Cord in front of the entrance to Sarah Heap's herb garden. Somehow Partridge had managed to share his Cord with Romilly, rather than have a Wizard spacer between them, as was recommended practice. On either side of Romilly and Partridge, the circle of Wizards, scribes and Apprentices, linked with various lengths of purple cord, stretched out into the night. All were making the long, low drone that prepared the Cord for Marcia to raise the Safety Curtain.
Romilly and Partridge nodded at Jenna but neither smiled - they had both seen what had happened. Resolutely they continued their low drone.Silas stepped forward."Don't touch!" yelled Hildegarde, somewhat frazzled and - after his leap into the sitting room - not entirely trusting Silas to be sensible.Silas looked annoyed. "I wasn't going to," he said indignantly. "We can't touch the Cord," he whispered to Jenna. "It will break the Magyk.""So how are we supposed to get out?" Jenna asked irritably."It's all right, Princess Jenna," Hildegarde said soothingly. "We can get out, but there's a particular way of doing it. We need some of this . . ." Hildegarde reached into her sub-Wizard belt for her own piece of Conducting Cord. She drew it out and held up a very short length of purple cord. "Oh," she said. "I don't think that's long enough.""Standard sub-Wizard length," said Silas. "Enough for one person only." He took a much longer length from his Ordinary Wizard belt. "Use mine. I may as well do something useful. Now, this is what we do; we all stand really close together and - Maxie come back!"Jenna raced after Maxie and dragged him back; the wolfhound regarded her with big, brown, accusing eyes. She held Maxie close and Silas proceeded to encircle them all with his purple Conducting Cord. A few minutes later, a walking parcel of three people and a wolfhound shuffled toward the Cord held by Partridge and Romilly. Any other time Jenna would have giggled her way along, but now it was all she could do to blink back tears - every step took her away from Sarah, marooned in the Darke. She glanced back at the Palace and saw that a Magykal shimmer of purple had crept over it like a veil, Quarantining everything within. She wondered if Sarah knew what had happened. She wondered if Sarah now knew anything at all . . .Silas meanwhile was carefully tying both ends of his Conducting Cord to the main Cordon Cord, without actually touching it himself. Partridge and Romilly obligingly lifted their Cord like a jumping rope and the parcel of people and wolfhound shuffled underneath the Cord and out the other side."Well, that's it," sighed Silas. "We're out.""Mum's not," said Jenna as they set off slowly through the kitchen garden, along Sarah's neat paths that wound through the herb beds."I know," Silas said quietly. "But she won't be there forever, Jenna.""How do you know that?" asked Jenna."Because I am not going to let that happen," said Silas. "We are going to help Marcia figure this out.""Marcia is the one who made all this happen," Jenna said, annoyed. "If she hadn't tried to boss Mum around and if she had bothered to explain things, then Mum would have had time to get out.""And if your mother hadn't gone running off after a duck she would have had time to get out too," Silas pointed out. "But that is beside the point," he added quickly, noticing Jenna's stormy expression. "We need to get to the Wizard Tower. Marcia will need all the help she can get."They walked out the door in the kitchen garden wall and stepped into the small alleyway that ran along the back, going toward Wizard Way to the left and to the river to the right. Silas led the way with Maxie; Jenna and Hildegarde followed in silence. At the end of the alleyway Jenna stopped."I'm not going to the Wizard Tower," she said angrily. "I'm sick of Wizards. And I'm sick of Wizards messing everything up - especially on my birthday."Silas looked at her sadly. He didn't know what to say. Jenna seemed so irritable nowadays, and whatever he said was never quite right - and, he thought, it didn't help that she was dressed in that awful witch costume, either. He rummaged in his pocket, brought out a large brass key and handed it to her."What's that for?" asked Jenna."Home," said Silas. "Our place in the Ramblings. I've been fixing it up. Making it just how your mum always wanted it to be. It . . . it was going to be a surprise for her next birthday. She's always wanted to go home. But now . . . well, now you at least can go home."Jenna looked at the key lying heavy and cold in her palm. "That's not home, Dad. Home is where Mum is. Home is there." She pointed back at the Palace, the top row of Darke attic windows just visible over the alley wall.Silas sighed. "I know. But we'll need somewhere to sleep for now. I'll meet you there later - Big Red Door, There and Back Again Row. You know the way."Jenna nodded. She watched Silas walk briskly away, heading toward Wizard Way."Shall I come with you?" asked Hildegarde, who had kept a discreet distance behind Jenna and Silas. And then, receiving no answer, asked, "Jenna - Princess Jenna, are you all right?""No. And no," Jenna said sharply, cutting Hildegarde short before her sympathy got too much for her. She turned and ran back up the alley.Hildegarde decided not to follow. Princess Jenna needed some time on her own.Jenna followed the alley back up past the kitchen garden wall, around the dogleg turn that skirted the edge of the Dragon Field, and headed toward the river. The freezing night air bit into her as she ran, and she pulled her witch's hood up over her head to keep warm. The dark, dull shine of the river came into view and, breathless now, she slowed to a walking pace. The alley came to an end at a small, neglected jetty, which Jenna wandered onto. At the very end of the jetty she sat down on the damp and mossy wooden boards, wrapped her cloak around her and gazed at the sluggish black waters flowing silently beneath her feet. And there she sat, thinking of Sarah imprisoned in the Palace, wondering what was happening to her. She remembered childhood stories, Darke tales told around the fire late at night when she was meant to be asleep, tales told by visiting Wizards to the Heaps' crowded room in the Ramblings, of people emerging after years inside a Darke Domaine, their eyes wild and empty, their minds gone, their voices babbling gibberish. She remembered the whispered discussions on what could have reduced people to such a state, all kinds of ghastly details that came into people's heads late at night. And she could not help but think that all these terrible things could now, at that very moment, be happening to her mum.Jenna sat, silent tears dripping down her neck, gazing out at the river. Flakes of snow began to settle on her witch's cloak, and the cold coming from the water set her shivering, but she did not notice. All she wanted was to find Septimus and tell him what had happened.But where was he?