Marcia and Beetle crossed the Cordon using the same method that Silas had, although with greater efficiency. Once they were on the other side, Marcia stood back and looked at the Palace. She saw the purple Magykal shimmer covering it and the two torches on the outside of the main doors, which were still lit. Her Quarantine had worked. There was, however, no sign of Hildegarde, Sarah or Silas. Marcia felt worried. She scanned the inscrutable windows of the Palace and concentrated hard. Her heart sank. There was no escaping it - she Felt the presence of two humans inside the building. It did not bode well for Sarah and Silas - or was it Hildegarde and Silas - or Sarah and . . . Marcia briskly told herself to stop worrying. She would find out soon enough.
Marcia now began the next stage of isolating the Palace from the rest of the Castle. This was the stand down, from which the raising of the Safety Curtain would follow. She picked the two nearest members of the Cordon: Bertie Bott, Ordinary Wizard and dealer in used (or pre-loved, as Bertie liked to say) Wizard cloaks, and Rose, the sick bay Apprentice. To each one she said the prearranged stand-down password. Immediately they stopped their low hum. Rose sent the password around to her right, and Bertie sent it to his left. Like a retreating wave, the low drone faded and was replaced by the whispering of the password. Soon silence had fallen. It spread to the crowds who had gathered at the end of Wizard Way, waiting expectantly for the next stage. Word was that the Raising of a Safety Curtain was worth watching.
At first it did not seem particularly promising. Each person in the Cordon was now busy knotting his or her Cord to their neighbor's. They laid their joined Cord on the ground, making sure it had no twists or kinks in it, and walked carefully away so as not disturb the delicate Magyk - for Magyk involving so many participants was a fragile thing. Within minutes of Marcia giving the password, a huge circle of Cord lay on the ground like a purple snake encircling the Palace. Beetle, who was feeling rather melancholy after Jenna's outburst, thought the fragile Cord looked sad as it lay abandoned in the trampled grass.
Meanwhile, the Wizard Way audience had drifted in through the Palace Gate in order to get a closer look. People waited patiently, with only the occasional smothered cough giving their presence away. They watched as the ExtraOrdinary Wizard kneeled down and placed her hands a few inches above the Cord. Nudges and excited glances were exchanged - now at last something was happening.
Totally unaware of her audience, Marcia was concentrating hard. She felt a faint current of Magyk running unimpeded through the Cord, which told her that everyone had let go. Now for the difficult part, she thought. Still kneeling, Marcia kept her hands low and close to the Cord. What she had to do now required a huge amount of energy. She took a long, deep breath in. Beetle, who was watching Marcia intently, had never seen anyone breathe in for so long. He half expected Marcia to blow up like a balloon and float away. Indeed her cloak seemed to him to be moving outward as if it really was filling with air.
Beetle was actually stepping back in case Marcia did indeed go pop, when she at last stopped breathing in. Now she began to breathe out, her lips pursed as though she were blowing on hot soup. From her mouth came a shimmering stream of purple, which was drawn to the Cord like iron filings to a magnet. The stream of purple kept on coming; it settled on the section of Cord in front of Marcia and grew steadily brighter. When it was so bright that Beetle had to look away, Marcia at last stopped breathing out.
Now came the part that demanded real skill. Marcia placed her hands in the brilliant light and very slowly she began to raise her hands. Behind her the crowd gave a subdued murmur of appreciation as the blinding purple light began to move upward, following her hands while still remaining anchored to the Cord. Slowly, carefully, biting her lip in concentration, Marcia drew up the light, taking care not to pull it too fast, which could create weak spots or even holes in what was now a shimmering purple curtain. Beetle saw Marcia's muscles trembling with the effort, as though she were lifting a tremendously heavy weight. The curtain of light followed Marcia as, arms painfully outstretched, she got up from her knees and staggered awkwardly to her feet. Beetle resisted his instinct to help her up, knowing well enough not to break Marcia's immense concentration, which reduced her brilliant green eyes to pinpoints of light in her pale skin.
Suddenly, what everyone in the audience had been waiting for happened. With a shout of something long and complicated - that later no one could remember - Marcia threw her arms into the air. There was a loud whoosh, and a curtain of blindingly bright purple light shot as high as the very tips of Marcia's fingers, then raced off along the Cord with the zipping fizz of fire along a fuse.
A loud and appreciative "ooh" rose from the crowd, which seemed to startle Marcia. She swung around and glared at the assembled throng.
"Shh!" she hissed.
Abashed, the crowd fell silent. Some began to sidle away, but the more knowledgeable stayed, knowing that the best was yet to come.
Marcia had set the curtain of light racing off in one direction only - to her right. The reason for this was that she wanted to be present at the place where the light joined up. The join in a Safety Curtain was a delicate thing, and although some Wizards, for dramatic effect, would have sent the light racing off in both directions and hope that it successfully melded somewhere on the other side of the Palace, Marcia was more careful. She also disapproved of drama; she thought it devalued Magyk and encouraged people to see it as an entertainment - hence her irritation with the crowd.
Now the wait began for the return of the purple fire. It took a while. The nearly seven-foot-high purple curtain had to travel all around the Palace and, at the back of the building, where there had been too many people on the Cordon, down through the garden too - fairly close, in fact, to the hedge that pided the Dragon Field from the Palace garden.
Spit Fyre slept through the oncoming rush, but his Imprintor and Pilot, Septimus Heap, was wide-awake. He had been expecting a Safety Curtain, as he knew Marcia did not do things by halves. At the sight of the swathe of Magykal purple moving behind the top of the Dragon Field hedge, Septimus looked gloomily at the oncoming purple wall, admiring its evenness and brilliance. Marcia had clearly performed a textbook piece of Magyk - and he had not been part of it. Septimus watched the Safety Curtain travel on its way, and then he went back to the Dragon House, unwilling to face Marcia just then. He knew what she would say. It would be exactly what he would say to an Apprentice of his own if he or she ever missed something like this. And he didn't want to hear it.
At last the crowd saw the purple curtain reappear on the other side of the Palace. Conscious of the disapproving presence of the ExtraOrdinary Wizard, they greeted it with a restrained murmur of excitement and watched with bated breath as one end of the shimmering curtain traveled toward the other.
Later some said that the Closing of the Safety Curtain was an anticlimax, but others said it was the most amazing thing they had ever seen. It depended - like many things in life - on what you expected to see. All saw the meeting of the two sheets of light and the violent flash that accompanied it, but those who truly looked saw, for a few amazing seconds, the history of the Castle played out before them. The Safety Curtain was ancient Magyk (which always involved some form of breath control) and had been used by Castle Dwellers in a more primitive form even before the advent of the very first ExtraOrdinary Wizard. Before the Castle Walls had been built, a Safety Curtain had often been put around the Castle at the dark of the moon in an effort to keep out marauders from the Forest. It hadn't worked too well at first but every time it was used it grew stronger. And like the ancient pictures on the walls inside the Wizard Tower, deep inside it were echoes and snatches of wild moments in its long existence. As the Curtains met and melded together, it was possible to briefly see wonderful things within the shifting lights: fierce horsemen galloping through, screaming witches riding upon giant wolverines, giant tree fiends hurling Gargle Toad bombs; all played their brief part in breaching - and thus strengthening - the Safety Curtain. And then they were gone. The Magykal Curtain settled into a completely fused circle. The moving quality of the purple light changed to a steady glow and all was still.
Those who had glimpsed these visions stood stunned for a few seconds, then broke into excited chatter. Marcia rounded on the crowd.
"Quiet!" she shouted.
The chatter died away instantly.
"This is serious Magyk. I have put this Safety Curtain in place to protect you, not to give you ten minutes of free entertainment."
"We're paying for it now!" shouted one brave soul from the safety of the crowd.Marcia glared in the direction of the heckler and her voice took on an edge of steel. "You must understand that I have placed the Safety Curtain there to protect us all against a Darke Domaine that has engulfed the Palace." She paused to let this information sink in and saw, with some satisfaction, the crowd's mood become suitably serious and worried."I ask you to respect it. This is for your safety. For the safety of the Castle."The crowd was silent. A small girl at the front - whose hero was Marcia and who longed one day to be a Wizard - said in a very small voice, "Madam Marcia . . ."Despite somewhat creaky knees, Marcia squatted down. "Yes?""What if the Darke 'maine gets out?""It won't," Marcia said confidently. "You mustn't worry, you will be perfectly safe. The Palace is Quarantined. The Safety Curtain is there just in case." She stood up and addressed the crowd. "I can do nothing more until sunrise. Tomorrow, at first light, I shall Fumigate the Palace and all will be well. I bid you good night."There were a few murmurings of "thank you" and "g'night ExtraOrdinary" as people wandered off to find their way home - somehow the lights in Wizard Way no longer seemed interesting. Marcia watched the crowd disperse with some relief. It worried her to have too many people near something as powerful as a Safety Curtain. The various Wizards, scribes and Apprentices also began to wander off to their homes."Mr. Bott!" Marcia called out as the rotund purveyor of cloaks scuttled off for his dinner."Drat," Bertie muttered under his breath. But he dared not ignore the boss, as Marcia was known in the Wizard Tower. "Yes, Madam Marcia?" he said with a slight bow."No need for that, Mr. Bott," snapped Marcia, who hated any sign of what she called bowing and scraping. "You will take the first watch at the fusion point. It is, as I am sure you know, always a possible weak spot. I will send a relief at midnight.""Midnight?" gasped Bertie, his stomach already rumbling at the thought of the sausages, mash and gravy that his wife always prepared on the Longest Night and was surely waiting for him at home.Unlike Bertie Bott, Rose seemed loath to leave. She was gazing up at the Safety Curtain in wonder. "I'll take the watch, Madam Marcia," she offered."Thank you, Rose," said Marcia. "But I have already asked Mr. Bott."Bertie ran a limp hand across his forehead. "Actually, Madam Marcia, I do believe I am feeling a little faint," he said."Really?" said Marcia. "Well, if Rose takes your turn without any supper, she will faint. Whereas you, Mr. Bott, have plenty of . . . reserves."Rose took courage from Marcia's half smile as she regarded the discomforted Bertie Bott. "I would love to take the watch, Madam Marcia," she persisted. "Truly, I would. The Safety Curtain is amazing. I have never seen anything like it."Marcia gave in. She liked Rose and did not want to dent her enthusiasm. And after the conspicuous absence of her own Apprentice, Marcia appreciated some enthusiasm. "Very well, Rose. But go back to the Wizard Tower and have something to eat first. Take at least an hour. Then you may return and take Mr. Bott's watch. Now, Mr. Bott, what do you say to Rose?""Thank you, Rose," said Bertie Bott meekly.Bertie watched Rose and Marcia walk off into Wizard Way and sighed. He stamped his feet in the chill air and drew his cloak around him as another flurry of snow came in from the river. It was going to be a very long hour.