Stanley fell farther than he had ever fallen before. A rat's life was precarious, particularly that of a Message Rat, and Stanley had fallen off things many times before - but never anything as high as the top floor of the Ramblings. And he had certainly never been pushed.
It was probably being pushed that saved him. It was such a surprise to suddenly find himself airborne that Stanley was quite relaxed as he was launched into space. And so when he landed in the middle of one of the many scraggly bushes growing out of the Ramblings walls, bounced off, tumbled ten feet farther and landed - just - in a larger cousin of the previous bush, Stanley's little rat bones did not snap into pieces as they might have done if his muscles had been tensely awaiting their doom. Dazed, Stanley lay, listening to the sound of its bare winter branches slowly cracking under his weight.
The final craaaaaack of the branch did, however, make the rat a little tense. It suddenly swung down like a broken bone itself and, just in time, Stanley performed a neat leap to a large stone that was jutting out of the wall. His long, delicate claws curled into the masonry and, very slowly, the rat began what he later described (many times) as his controlled descent.
The walls at this point of the Ramblings went straight down into the river but, luckily for Stanley, far away in the Port the tide was going out, and the river even as far up as the Castle was affected by the tides. At the bottom of his controlled descent Stanley clambered down the huge blocks of slimy green stone that formed the base of the Ramblings (and spent most of their time under water), slipped off and landed in the river mud with a faint plop.
The rat now began the long trek home. He skirted the Castle walls, hopping up onto the riverbank when he could, leaping over rocks, rotting hulks and mud flats when he couldn't. It was a dismal and occasionally frightening journey. Once Stanley thought he heard a distant roar come from deep within the Castle and the sound unsettled him, but it was not repeated and he began to think he had imagined it. As Stanley traveled onward he could not help but glance up at the Castle, searching for a lighted window to raise his spirits. But there were none. He had left the only one far behind him, and he began to wonder if even that was now Darke. The darkness frightened Stanley. He had never paid much attention to the Castle lights before; rats did not understand humans' love of light and flames. They preferred shadows where they could run unseen; light meant danger and usually someone wielding a broom - or worse. But that night Stanley began to appreciate the human love of light. As he hopped through yet another patch of sticky, fishy mud he realized that, in the past, when he had looked up and seen lights in windows, he had known that behind each flickering candle flame there was the person who had lit it - someone who was in the room, busy by the light of the candle. It meant, thought Stanley, life. But now, with every window dark, it felt as if the Castle was empty of all human life. And without humans, what is a rat to do?
And so it was a rat filled with foreboding that finally scaled the outside wall of the East Gate Lookout Tower - headquarters of the Message Rat Service and home to Stanley and his four teenage ratlets. Stanley peered in through the tiny, arrow-slit window and saw nothing. But he smelled something. His delicate rat nose smelled the Darke - a sour, stale smell with a touch of burned pumpkin about it - and he knew he was too late. The Darke Domaine had invaded his home and somewhere inside were the four foundling ratlets whom Stanley loved more than anything else in the world.
Florence, Morris, Robert and Josephine - known to all but Stanley as Flo, Mo, Bo and Jo - appeared to any other rat to be four scrawny, awkward teen ratlets, but to Stanley they were perfection itself. They had been no more than a few days old when he had found them abandoned in a hole in the wall on the Outside Path. Stanley - who had never been remotely interested in babies - had scooped up the blind and hairless ratlets and taken them home to the East Gate Lookout Tower. He had loved them as his own; he had fed them, picked off their fleas, worried about them as they first went out scavenging alone, and recently he had begun to teach them the basic skills of a Message Rat. They were his whole life - they were the bright and starry future of the Message Rat Service. And now they were gone. Stanley dropped down from the window, utterly desolate.
"Ouch! Watch it, Dadso!" a young rat squeaked.
"Robert!" gasped Stanley. "Oh, thank goodness . . ." He felt quite overcome.
"You're heavy, man. You're squashing my tail," said Bo gruffly.
"Sorry." Stanley shifted his weight with a groan. He was getting too old to fall a hundred feet and not notice it.
"You all right, Da?" asked Flo.
"Where you been?" This from Jo.
"Oh Da! We thought it had got you." A hug from Mo - always the emotional one - made Stanley's world feel right once more.
The five rats sat in a despondent line on the Outside Path, which was no more than a narrow ledge below the East Gate Lookout Tower. Stanley recounted the events of the past few hours.
"It's bad, Da, isn't it?" Mo said after a while.
"Doesn't look good," said Stanley gloomily. "But, according to that Alchemist chappie, we'll be all right here - we're outside the walls. It's all those poor rats trapped in the Castle I worry about." He sighed. "And I'd only just got the Service fully staffed."
"So where to now, Dadso?" asked Bo, kicking his feet impatiently on the stones.
"Nowhere, Robert, unless you want to swim the Moat. We'll sit the night out here and see what the morning brings."
"But it's so cold, Da," said Flo, looking mournfully at the tiny flakes of snow drifting down.
"Not half as cold as it is inside the Castle, Florence," said Stanley severely. "There's a stone missing from the wall a bit farther along. We can spend the night in there. It's good training."
"For what?" moaned Jo.
"For becoming a reliable and effective Message Rat, that's for what, Josephine."
This was met by a barrage of groans. However, the ratlets made no further protests. They were tired, scared and relieved to have Stanley back safe. Led by him they trooped along to the space in the wall and, reverting to babyhood, they fell into a rat pile - exactly as they had been when Stanley had found them - and resigned themselves to an uncomfortable night. When Stanley was sure they were settled he said, very reluctantly, "There's something I have to do. I won't be long. Stay there and don't move an inch."
"We won't," they chorused sleepily.
Stanley set off along the Outside Path toward Jannit Maarten's boatyard, muttering grumpily to himself.
"You really should know better by now, Stanley. Do not mess with Wizards. Or Princesses. Not even just one Princess. One Princess is as bad as at least half a dozen Wizards. Every time you get involved with a Princess or a Wizard - especially the Heaps - you end up on some wild goose chase in the middle of the night when you could be tucked up nice and warm in your bed. When will you ever learn?"
Stanley scurried along the Outside Path. Soon he was having second, third and fourth thoughts about the wisdom of his journey.
"What are you doing, you stupid rat? You don't have to go off and find yet another no-good Heap. You never actually said you would, did you? In fact, you didn't actually have a chance to say anything, did you, Stanley? And why was that? Because if you just cast your mind back, mouse-brain, that no-good Heap's own mother tried to kill you. Have you forgotten already? And in case you hadn't noticed, it's freezing cold, this path is a death trap, goodness knows what is going on in the Castle and you really shouldn't leave the ratlets outside on their own; aren't they just as important as a bunch of troublesome Wizards ohmysaintedauntiedoriswhatisthat?"
A roar - wild and rough-edged - broke through the silence. This time it was close. Too close. In fact, it sounded as though it was right above him. Stanley shrank back against the wall and looked up. There was nothing to see but the deep, dark night sky, scattered with a few clouded stars. The Castle Walls reared up high behind him and above them, Stanley knew, were the tall, thin houses that backed onto the Moat. But without even a glimmer of light the rat could see nothing.
As Stanley waited, wondering if it was safe to move, he realized that he could see something. On the still surface of the Moat, just around the next bend, a faint reflection of light caught his keen rat eye. It was, he figured, coming from the very place he was heading: Jannit Maarten's Boatyard. The glimmer of light raised Stanley's spirits considerably. He decided to carry on with his mission - even if it did involve a no-good Heap.
A few minutes later Stanley leaped lightly down from the Outside Path and ran across the boatyard, dodging between the tangle of boat clutter that inhabited Jannit's yard, heading for the wonderful sight of a lighted window. Granted it belonged to the Port barge and was, strictly speaking, a lighted porthole, but Stanley didn't care. Light was light, and where there was light there was life.
The hatch to the cabin-with-the-porthole was locked and barred but that did not deter a Message Rat. Stanley bounded onto the cabin roof, found the air vent - an open tube shaped like an umbrella handle - and ped in.
Nicko had never heard Jannit Maarten scream before. It was actually more of a loud squeak - short, sharp and very high-pitched. It didn't sound like it had come from Jannit at all."Rat, rat!" she yelled. She leaped to her feet, picked up a nearby wrench - there was always a wrench near Jannit - and smashed it down. Stanley's split-second reactions were severely tested. He leaped aside just in time and, waving his arms in the air, he squeaked, "Message Rat!"Wrench raised for another swipe, Jannit stared at the rat that had suddenly landed in the middle of the table, only just missing the lighted candle. Stanley watched the wrench with particular interest. Everyone else around the table watched Stanley.Jannit Maarten - wiry, with a wind-browned face like a walnut and iron-gray hair in a sailor's pigtail - was a woman who looked like she meant business. Very slowly she put the wrench down. Stanley, who had been holding his breath, exhaled with relief. He looked up at the expectant faces surrounding him and began to enjoy the moment. This was what Message Ratting was all about - the drama, the excitement, the attention, the power.Stanley surveyed his audience with the commanding, confident eye of a rat that knows it will not, for the next few minutes at least, be swiped at with a wrench. He looked at the recipient of his message, Nicko Heap, just to check it was really him. It was. He'd recognize Nicko's tiny sailor's plaits woven into his straw-colored hair anywhere. And those Heap bright green eyes too. Next to him was Rupert Gringe, his short hair shining carroty in the candlelight, and for once he was not scowling. In fact, Rupert actually had a smile on his face while he looked at the slightly plump young woman sitting close beside him. Stanley knew her, all right. She was the skipper of the Port barge. She had red hair too, a good deal more of it than Rupert Gringe. And she too had a smile, and in the candlelight she even looked quite friendly, although Stanley was not convinced. The last time he'd seen her she's hurled a rotten tomato at him. Better than a wrench, though . . .Nicko cut through the rat's musings. "Who's it for then?" he said."What?""The message. Who is it for?""Ahem." Stanley cleared his throat and stood up on his back legs. "Please note that due to the current, er . . . situation . . . and circumstances pertaining thereto, this is not delivered in Standard Message Form. Therefore no responsibility can be accepted for the accuracy or otherwise of this message. A fee is not payable but a box for contributions toward the new drains at the East Gate Lookout Tower may be found at the Message Rat Office door. Please note that no money is kept in the box overnight.""Is that it?" asked Nicko. "You came to tell us about the drains?""What drains?" said Stanley, whose mouth so often ran ahead of his thoughts. And then, when his thoughts caught up, he said rather snappily, "No, of course I didn't.""I know which rat you are," said Nicko suddenly. "You're Stanley, aren't you?""Why do you say that?" asked Stanley suspiciously.Nicko just grinned. "Thought so. So, Stanley, who is the message for?""Nicko Heap," Stanley replied, feeling slightly offended, although he was not sure why."Me?" Nicko seemed surprised."If that is you, yes.""Of course it's me. What's the message?"Stanley took a deep breath. "Find Nicko - Nicko Heap, at Jannit's boatyard. Tell him what's happening. Tell him where we are. Please."Nicko went pale. "Who sent it?"Stanley sat down on a pile of papers. "Well, I wouldn't go running messages like this for just anyone, you know - especially given the present, er . . . situation. However, I do consider that I am, to some extent at least, not a mere messenger but operating in the capacity of a personal representative of - oof!"Nicko's finger jabbed the rat's ample stomach. "Ouch! That hurt," protested Stanley. "There is no need for violence, you know. I only came here out of the goodness of my heart."Nicko leaned across the table and stared eyeball to eyeball with the rat. "Stanley," he said, "if you don't tell me who sent the message right now I shall personally throttle you. Got that?""Yep. Okey dokey. Got that.""So who sent it?""The Princess.""Jenna.""Yes. Princess Jenna."Nicko looked at his companions, the light from the single candle in the center of the table throwing glancing shadows across their worried faces. For a few minutes Stanley's antics had distracted them from what was happening outside - but no longer. Now all their worries for their families and friends in the Castle came flooding back."Okay," said Nicko slowly. "So . . . tell me. Where is Jenna? Who is 'we'? Are they safe? When did she send the message? How did you - "It was Stanley's turn to interrupt. "Look," he said wearily. "It's been a long day. I've seen some nasty stuff. I'll tell you about it, but a cup of tea and biscuit first would work wonders."Maggie went to get up but Rupert stopped her. "You've had a long day too," he said. "I'll do it."Silence fell, broken only by the gentle hiss of the little stove - and the sudden, terrifying roar of something outside, deep in the Darkenesse.