Here is a mix of glimpses from the Castle from snippets I have written and insights from Septimus fans about why the series means so much to them. This first Castle piece take place after the main series has ended but before the TodHunter Moon series has begun. It is slower-paced and aimed at older readers. Warning: there may be some rude words …
First up, here’s a new one – Beetle and Sep at Halloween. Or Hallowseeth as they call it in the Castle and the Port. No rude words in this one!
Stanley, Certified Message Rat and Rat Office Chief, was not in a good mood. There were many things that Stanley did not like, and pretty much all of them were pestering him that night.
Firstly, Stanley did not like messages comprising of just one word. A one-word message was a waste of a Certified Message Rat’s valuable time and training. Particularly when it was something stupid. Like ‘Boo!’
Secondly, Stanley did not like pretty much every message to be saying the same thing. But tonight that was exactly what was happening. To his disgust, almost every message said, ‘Boo!’
Thirdly, Stanley did not like the Castle importing childish customs from the Port. Which clearly it had.
Fourthly, Stanley did not like Halloween—or Hallowseeth—as it was known in the Port, and now in the Castle too.
Fifthly, Sixthly and seventhly, Stanley really did not like Hallowseeth.
In addition, Stanley did not like being ordered by the young Queen to keep the Rat Office open until midnight when he would far rather be tucked up in bed. But now Stanley was counting down the seconds to the moment he could unplug the new message system—which Stanley also did not like—and go to his nice, warm bed.
So when, at thirty seconds to midnight, the message machine lit up the sign that said ‘Turbot’, Stanley said a very rude word.
“Pa!” his daughter, Florence, remonstrated. “You are always telling us not to swear.”
“It’s different when I do it,” Stanley grumbled. “It actually means something. You kids swear all the time. Ignore that thing, Florence. It’s very nearly midnight. And I am not going all the way out of the Castle, getting wet feet and very possibly more, just to let some idiot from that creepy tavern tell some other idiot, ‘Boo!’. No way.”
Florence was shocked. “But Pa, that’s against the ROOO.”
“You know perfectly well what, Pa. The Rat Office Operating Orders.”
“I’ll go,” Florence said. “You go to bed.”
But her father was not listening; he was watching the long hand of the huge clock on the wall creep towards its smaller partner patiently waiting for it at the very top of the clock.
“Midnight!” Stanley shouted triumphantly. Surprisingly athletic for a portly rat, he jumped up, grabbed hold of a large lever on the side of the message machine and pulled it down. The faint hum that had perfused the Rat Office died away. “No more rubbish tonight,” he said with an air of satisfaction. He yawned. “I’m off to bed, Flo. And you too. It’s been a very long day.”
“G’Night, Pa.” Florence watched her father totter out of the Rat Office into his little bedroom with its pile of comfortable cushions and warm blankets into which he would soon be burrowing. She turned down the lantern and stood in the dim light, considering what to do. Florence had only just earned her Message Rat Certificate and took her promises to ‘answer all Certified Message Requests regardless of Origin or Originator’ very seriously. And any request that came into the Rat Office on the machine during office hours was just that—a Certified Message Request. With a small sigh, Florence jumped up to the exit hatch, which led out to the ratrun along the top of the Castle wall, and headed out into the night.
Florence ran silently along the path at the top of the wall, keeping to the shelter of the mostly crumbled battlements that rose up from Moat side. It was a windy night and she could hear the creaking and rustling of some of the more ancient Forest trees in the distance. It was also very dark. Most of the Hallowseeth window lanterns had been extinguished when people had gone to bed and the new moon had already set. But the sky was clear and a brilliant frosting of stars shone down on the little rat as she made rapid progress along the wall. Florence headed across the valley in the roof of the North Gate Gate House—below which she heard the combined snores of the gatekeeper, Gringe, and his wife—and before long was scuttling down a wide buttress to a rocky outcrop beside the dark waters of the Moat.
Now came the tricky part—Florence had to cross to the other side. In daytime the rats took the run beneath the drawbridge, but that was not an option at night, for Gringe raised the bridge promptly at sunset. So Florence had to take a rat plank. A small store of smooth, flat pieces of wood were kept stacked in a crevice at the top of the rock and Florence pulled out one of them. She placed it on the top of the rock where, if the moon had been out, she would have seen the well-worn sheen of a slide straight into the water, and then she pushed off. The plank was a good one. It shot down the rockslide, hit the cold water with a splash and sent Florence off on her way. Halfway across Florence had to—as Stanley would have put it—‘get out and push’, which meant getting into the water, holding the plank like a float and swimming with it. The icy chill took Florence’s breath away but she was not in the water for long. Soon the plank had enough momentum and Florence scrambled back onto it. It bumped into the soft mud on the opposite bank; Florence leapt off the plank, pulled it up into the reeds and was away in seconds.
Florence’s destination was on the far side of the River, which the Moat joined at both ends, thus making the Castle into an island. Crossing the river was easy. The One-Way-Bridge (named because there was only room for travellers to cross one way at a time) took the young rat onto a deserted track that led into some dark woods that lined the far side of the River. Florence headed for some dim lights she could see through the trees. A few minutes later, Florence was pushing her way through the rat-flap—installed as a condition of a direct connection to the Rat Office—and was at her destination: The Grateful Turbot Tavern.
The chill inside the tavern took Florence’s breath away. Shivering suddenly, she hurried across the sticky floor to the bar where a small lantern gave out an uncertain light. Behind the bar Florence could see the dark shape of a small, almost spherical woman, who she guessed must be the landlady. “Ah, the rat!” came the landlady’s relieved voice. Florence ran up the side of the bar, where she stood up on her hind legs and waited for her instructions.
The landlady seemed unsure what to do. “Thank you for coming,” she said. “I’ve not done a Message before. With a rat, like yourself. Wasn’t sure you’d answer, to be honest.”
Florence put her head on one side. As Certified Message Rat she had to be Commanded to Speake using the ‘Speake Rattus Rattus’ command. Without that she was mute. From her messenger bag she passed the landlady a card, which said: WHAT IS YOUR MESSAGE?
The landlady squinted at the card and gave it back to Florence. “Oh yes. The Message. The thing is there’s this ghost who just turned up saying he wants to see his son. Ever since he arrived the place has been like an icebox. Look at my fingers—I’ve got frostbite I reckon. Anyway, he says if he doesn’t see his son by sunrise tomorrow, he’s going to Freeze this place. Forever. Nightmare, huh? Who’s going to come here just to get their bits frozen off, you tell me that? So could you go and ask his son to come here to the Turbot? Like, right now. Please. I’d be most grateful.”
Wishing she could Speake, Florence fished out another card: MESSAGE RECIPIENT?
“Oh, sorry. Yes, of course. It’s for … let me see. I wrote it down.” The landlady gave Florence a scrappy piece of paper on which she had written: B. TELL. “B. Tell, he’s called. Didn’t say what the B stands for. Weird, when it’s your son.”
Florence regarded the note with some impatience. It was nowhere near enough information. She pulled another note out from her bag: MESSAGE DESTINATION?
The landlady shrugged. “I dunno. He didn’t say. I thought you Message Rats knew where everyone lived. I thought that was the whole bloomin’ point of Message Rats.”
Florence felt annoyed. She put another note down on the bar. MESSAGE NOT DELIVERABLE
“You can’t say that!” the landlady protested.
Florence shrugged. She couldn’t say anything, that was the problem.
“Rat won’t take it!” The landlady yelled across to a shadowy figure standing beside the fire.
Florence saw the darkness shiver and then move slowly towards her. She could not usually see ghosts but this one—or was it two?—seemed to be making a huge effort to be seen. She felt the fur all down the back of her neck standing up on end and as the ghost approached, Florence felt like a wall of ice had hit her. She stared up at the phantom that stood before her and saw, to her shock, someone she recognised. Beetle! Florence was puzzled. But Beetle’s not dead, she thought. And he’s not got a son either. And then she understood: the ghost was Beetle’s father. And he wanted to see his son, B.Tell, also known as Beetle, the Chief Hermetic Scribe.
Hurriedly, Florence scrabbled in her messenger bag for one last note: MESSAGE ACCEPTED.
“Oh, bless you!” Gloria said, her bad temper vanishing.
Florence jumped down from the bar, sprinted across the room and dived out of the rat flap.
Beetle and Septimus were sitting by the ancient log stove in the rooms of the Chief Hermetic Scribe, in the attic of the Manuscriptorium. Septimus had spent Hallowseeth on watch with his friend in the Manuscriptorium’s front office in case of trouble. The previous year someone had painted the window bright green and then written a rude limerick about Beetle over it, which had caused much amusement to the younger scribes. (The older ones, who were good friends with Beetle, had been suitably shocked). Apart from a badly-aimed flour bomb the evening had been quiet and as soon as midnight struck Beetle and Septimus had retreated upstairs to the warmth of the attic, and one of Beetle’s notoriously strong Firewater Fizz Froots. Both were feeling a little lightheaded when a noise came from the window: tap tapittey tap-tap-tap.
Beetle leapt to his feet, his face flushed. “She’s replied!” he said. “I didn’t think she would. I really didn’t.” He laughed. “I guess she was keeping me waiting just like she always does.”
Septimus looked puzzled. “Who’s replied to what?” he asked.
“Jenna,” said Beetle as he hurried to open the Message Rat window shutter. “I sent her a Hallowseeth Message.”
Septimus laughed. “Not ‘Boo!’ by any chance?”
Beetle sounded annoyed as he fumbled clumsily with the catch. “Yes. So what?”
Septimus decided not to push Beetle too far. He knew how much his friend cared for Jenna and he also knew that Jenna, much as she liked Beetle, did not seem to feel quite the same way. “Nothing,” Septimus said.
But Beetle was feeling somewhat sensitive. He swung around and glared at Septimus. “It’s not nothing. How do you know what I sent? Did you send one too?”
“Of course I didn’t,” Septimus said.
“So what do you mean?” Beetle demanded.
Septimus was annoyed now. “Well, ‘Boo!’ is so lame. Everyone does it.”
Beetle looked crestfallen. “Do they?”
Septimus felt bad. “Look, Beet, Jen obviously didn’t think it was lame, did she? So let that rat in and see what she’s said.”
Beetle pulled open the shutter to reveal a small rat with her nose pressed against the glass. He opened the window and the rat hopped in.
“Hello Florence,” Beetle said. “You’ve got a message for me?”
Florence nodded and fumbled in her messenger bag.
“Do the Speake,” Septimus prompted Beetle.
In his excitement Beetle had forgotten, but he wasn’t about to let Septimus know. “I do know what to do,” he said snappily. Beetle turned to Florence and said, very slowly and clearly, “Speake, Rattus Rattus.”
Florence gave a squeak of relief. “Thank goodness. For a moment I thought you were going to be as bad as that stupid landlady. Sheesh.”
“Landlady?” Beetle asked.
Florence did not reply. She was running through the rambling message in her mind and wanted to say it before it got stuck and cluttered up her mind for the next few weeks. Standing on the windowsill, Florence cleared her throat. “Message begins: ‘The thing is there’s this ghost who just turned up saying he wants to see his son. Ever since he arrived the place has been like an icebox. Look at my fingers—I’ve got frostbite I reckon. Anyway, he says if he doesn’t see his son by sunrise tomorrow, he’s going to Freeze this place. Forever. Nightmare, huh? Who’s going to come here just to get their bits frozen off, you tell me that? So could you go and ask his son to come here to the Turbot? Like, right now. Please. I’d be most grateful.’ Message ends.”
Both Beetle and Septimus stared at Florence uncomprehendingly.
“Message repeat?” Florence asked helpfully.
Beetle did not reply. He was too busy trying not to be disappointed. Whoever the message was from, it clearly was not from Jenna.
Septimus answered for him. “Yes please,” he said.
Florence sighed. “Sorry, Apprentice. The request must come from the recipient.”
“Beet, ask Florence to repeat the message,” Septimus said.
Beetle was in another world. “You were right,” he said. “She thought it was lame.”
Septimus got up and put his arm around his friend. “Look, Beetle. Forget about Jenna just for a moment. This message feels important. Ask Florence to repeat it.”
They listened to the message again and this time Septimus wrote it down. Then they thanked Florence and watched her hop through the rat flap and out into the night.
“What a nasty thing to do,” Beetle said.
Septimus—who was already working out the best way to get to The Grateful Turbot—did not understand. “What d’you mean?” he asked.
Beetle looked upset. “I thought everyone liked me here. I try to be a good boss. You know, listen to the scribes and not do stupid stuff. And then this happens. Some scribe making a horrible joke about my dad. And on Hallowseeth too.”
“Beetle,” Septimus said quietly. “I think this is real.”
“How can it be real?” Beetle demanded almost angrily. “If my dad was a ghost around here he’d have Appeared to me before now, wouldn’t he?” Beetle threw himself into the chair by the fire. “When I was a kid I longed for him to Appear to me. Every time I did something special I always looked for him but he never Appeared. Never. And every time he didn’t Appear I used to tell myself that it was because what I’d done wasn’t important enough for him to make the effort for. So I kept trying harder. And harder. But when I got made Chief Hermetic Scribe and he still didn’t Appear … well, then I knew for sure.”
“Knew what for sure?” Septimus asked quietly.
“That it was me who wasn’t important enough. Just me. Nothing else.”
Silence fell in the room, and Septimus sat down quietly on the stool in front of the fire. He didn’t know what to say. He had no idea that was how Beetle had felt. After a while, Septimus spoke. “Look, Beet. Ghosts have all kinds of reasons they don’t Appear to people they love. Maybe he couldn’t get here. Maybe he got trapped in some ghostly loop. Some ghosts never work out how to leave their Resting Place—or even realise they’re allowed to. Anything could have happened to him.”
Beetle shook his head. “No. It’s a trick, Sep. A nasty, mean, low down trick. Some scribe wants to watch me struggling along the Moat to that creepy tavern in the middle of the night. And then have a good laugh about it to all the other scribes tomorrow.”
“I don’t believe that for one minute,” Septimus said. He stood up. “You’ll regret it if you don’t go.”
Beetle stared into the fire.
“Beetle, listen to me,” Septimus sounded serious. “If you don’t go, then for the rest of your life you will wonder if it was him.”
Beetle did not answer at once. Then, at last, he said, “Bother.” He frowned up at Septimus. “You’re right. I will always wonder.”
“So come on, Beet. Let’s go find that fancy boat of yours.”
Beetle stood up and wrapped his long cloak around him. A gust of wind rattled the rat window and he walked over and closed the shutter. Then he turned around. “Ok,” he said. “Let’s go.”
They took the Manuscriptorium rowing boat that Beetle kept tied up to a small jetty in the Moat. Septimus—who was far better at rowing—took the oars and slowly but steadily rowed them towards the river. The wind was rising now and had blown all the clouds away but the Moat was sheltered by the huge bulk of the Castle that rose up beside it. The starry sky above felt vast and the water beneath, dark and deep. Septimus shivered. He was beginning to wish he had not been quite so persuasive. Maybe Beetle was right—maybe this was just a nasty prank.
The waters of the Moat become choppy as they met the flow of the river, which was faster than usual after a rainstorm the previous day. With some difficulty, Septimus manoeuvred the rowing boat into the current.
“Watch out!” Beetle yelled, as the pointy shape of the best part of a tree headed towards them. Septimus quickly turned the nose of the boat away and the half-a-tree gave landed a glancing blow, sending the boat rocking frantically, and then headed carelessly on its way.
“Sheesh,” Beetle muttered. “This is crazy.”
Septimus did not disagree. Doggedly, he propelled the rowing boat—which suddenly felt way too flimsy—across the current, which swept them along with assorted twigs and debris. They rocked and bumped their way across, with Beetle white-knuckled clinging to the side of the boat as Septimus did his best to steer a course for the rotten old jetty outside The Grateful Turbot, but the strength of the flow took them racing past it. Beetle watched it disappear with a look of despair, but Septimus gave a furious wrench to his left oar and with a sudden twist that sent Beetle sprawling, the prow of the boat hit the mud of the riverbank with a resounding thud. Septimus threw a rope around the nearest bush and prayed it would hold. It did. While Beetle supressed a sudden to desire to yell, don’t leave me! Septimus clambered out of the boat and then scrambled up the slippery bank to the track. Slowly, he hauled the rowboat back against the current to the jetty, while Beetle—feeling utterly useless—clung on grimly.
And now they were here, outside the battered and worm-eaten door to The Grateful Turbot, Septimus ringing the bell dangling inside the porch so hard that Beetle had put his hands over his ears. But the windows were dark and all within was silent. “I knew it,” Beetle muttered. “We’ve been had.”
Septimus said nothing. He was beginning to think that Beetle was right all along. He kicked the door in frustration and it slowly swung open, creaking as it went. They looked at each other, both suddenly unwilling to step over the threshold.
“Sep,” whispered Beetle. “I just thought. You know how smart Alther looks?”
Septimus was baffled. “Alther? What are you on about?”
“It’s because that’s how he looked when he died, wasn’t it? He was dressed up to see the Queen and so that’s how he looks as a ghost. And always will.”
“Yes, so what? Come on Beetle, let’s get inside.”
But Beetle hung back. He glanced around as though someone might be listening and said in a low voice, “Well, my dad—if he really is in there—he was bitten by a spider or something. Mum isn’t sure. But what she always says is that he swelled up like a balloon and went purple. Looked like he was going to burst, she said.”
“Oh,” said Septimus. He could see where this was going.
“So is that what he’ll look like—a big purple balloon? And I don’t know if I want to see that, because that’s how I’ll always remember him.”
Septimus understood Beetle’s reluctance and was not sure how to reassure him. “Perhaps he deflated before he died, so he’ll just be kind of wrinkly,” he offered rather unsatisfactorily.
Beetle frowned. “It’s not funny, Sep.”
Suddenly the dim light of a lantern flared inside and a voice called hesitantly, “Is anybody there?”
Septimus pushed the door open further, the creak setting his teeth on edge, and peered in. He shivered and pulled his cloak around him. It felt like the inside of an icehouse. “You sent a Message Rat. For Beetle.”
There was a sound of hurried footsteps and a moment later a small round figure swathed in blankets and wearing a pair of fluffy slippers appeared at the door with a lantern held high. A thick pair of mittens clutched the lantern and a thick scarf was wound around the figure’s head and face so that only the nose and eyes showed. “Sorry to keep you waiting,” the figure said. “Didn’t hear the bell with all this stuff round me head. Come in, come in.”
“I’m not the person you want,” Septimus said, hurriedly. “He’s outside.”
The landlady peered out and saw Beetle, impressive in his long, dark blue coat with its gold flashes at the collar and cuffs. “Blimey!” she said. She looked at Septimus enquiringly. “This is B. Tell?”
“Beetle,” Septimus corrected her. “Chief Hermetic Scribe.”
“Oh my days. I had no idea.” The landlady curtseyed and the scarf fell off the top of her head. She quickly rewound it. “Thank you for coming, Mr Tell,” she said, hurrying out into the porch and taking hold of the reluctant Beetle by his elbow. “I am most grateful to you, Sir; most grateful. Please come in.” Beetle gave in and allowed himself to be ushered inside.
Once they were in the landlady slammed the door behind them, locked it and dropped the key into her pocket. Septimus felt a shiver run through him. He didn’t like being locked in. Not even in a tavern.
The landlady went into professional mode. “Can I get you gentlemen anything to drink?” she asked.
“No thank you,” Septimus said. “But perhaps you would take us to the ghost.”
The landlady took a deep breath. “Yes, of course. Do you want to borrow a scarf, gentlemen? Or a woolly blanket?”
“No, thank you,” Septimus told him. “We’re fine, thanks.”
“If you’re sure.” The landlady led them over to the huge inglenook fireplace which all the regular ghosts had deserted. In their place stood …
“Beetle!” Septimus gasped. The ghost looked exactly like Beetle. His dark hair flopped over his eyes, his uncertain smile was crooked in just the same way and his hands were thrust into his pockets just as Beetle’s were. Septimus glanced back at his friend who was staring transfixed at his doppelganger.
“Dad?” Beetle whispered.
“Son?” the ghost whispered in reply.
Beetle burst into tears.
Septimus left the two together beside the dying embers of the ice-cold fire and wandered back to the bar. He gratefully accepted the landlady’s offer of a large mug of hot, sweet cider and sat at the bar, watching the two figures sitting together upon a high-backed settle, leaning towards one another deep in conversation. If it were not for the fact that through one of them Septimus could see firelight, he would have found it hard to tell the difference between them.
“I’m Gloria, by the way,” the landlady said. “Thanks for coming. Couldn’t have stood a whole year in this cold. We’ve never been threatened by a ghost before. He doesn’t look the type to turn nasty, but I suppose you never can tell.” Gloria dropped her voice to a whisper. “I’m sure when he came in he was with something—some kind of Spectre. You know the ones. They come in sometimes, usually with the younger ghosts. Like minders telling them what to do. Very creepy.”
This was new to Septimus. “Ghosts with Entities attached to them?”
“Not actually stuck to them. But hovering right beside them, you know. And the ghost is always checking in with the Spectre, seeing if it’s doing the right thing.” Gloria shivered. “Not nice. Must be bad enough being a ghost without one of those creepos breathing down your neck all the time.” She gave a chuckle. “Not that there’s any actual breathing going on of course. Haha.”
Septimus managed a weak smile. “I guess not,” he said, peering into the gloom of the bar. “So where’s the Spectre now?”
Gloria shrugged. “It’s here somewhere. I reckon it’s the Spectre that’s making this place such a bloomin’ icebox. I’ve never known a ghost do that. Never. Can I do you a bacon sandwich?”
“Oh!” Septimus said. “Yes. Yes you can. Thanks.”
And so the night progressed. Septimus and Gloria in their redoubt behind the bar, swathed in blankets consuming—in addition to the bacon sandwich—all the small tubs of salted nuts, three slightly clammy chocolate bars, a large bag of banana bears and a succession of coffees. By the time the dawn light was creeping through the gaps in the window shutters Septimus felt so queasy that he did not notice Beetle getting to his feet and walking slowly across to the bar.
“Hey Sep,” Beetle was smiling but his eyes looked suspiciously bright.
“Hey,” Septimus replied a little faintly. “Ok?”
“He’s gone now,” Beetle said, his eyes shining.
“Ah, bless,” said Gloria, who now knew the whole story from Septimus. “You boys like a coffee?”
“No thanks, but thanks all the same,” Beetle said. “Time to go home, eh Sep?”
Septimus nodded. He just wanted to get out into the fresh air.
The dawn chill revived Septimus a little, but as he looked down at the rowing boat rocking gently on the outgoing tide he felt as if the banana bears were starting a fight in his stomach.
“You don’t look so good,” Beetle told him. “Let’s walk back. I’ll send a scribe to pick the boat up later.”
As they wandered along the track Septimus was glad that all he had to do was listen to Beetle. “Sep, you were so right to make me go. It was amazing. I can’t believe it. You know when I was ill in the Infirmary with the Sickenesss? Well he found mum and begged her to let him see me. But then he didn’t want to upset me so he DisAppeared. But he sat by my bed, Sep. He was there for me.”
There was something Septimus did not understand. “So how come he looked ok last night?”
“Ah. That was that weird thing lurking. A Spectre I think. This Spectre thing offered Dad—oh it’s so strange to be saying ‘Dad’—what he called a deal. He could have Hallowseeth night looking how he was before he got bitten. That was nice, wasn’t it?”
Septimus was not so sure. “So what was the deal? Spectres always want something in return.”
“Not this one. Once it knew who Dad was it could not have been more helpful.”
Septimus was beginning to get a bad feeling—and it wasn’t just the banana bears. “You mean once it knew who you were, Beetle.”
Beetle shrugged. “Same thing, really.”
Septimus didn’t think it was the same thing at all. They were walking over the One Way Bridge now and as they reached the other side, Septimus whispered, “It’s following us.”
“The Spectre. See?” Septimus pointed to a tall, grey shape hovering on the brow of the bridge.
“River mist,” Beetle said. “That’s all.”
“No, Beetle. I’ve not got my Spectre Classification Certificate for nothing. That is a classic Attachment Entity.”
“Well, I can’t see it,” Beetle said.
Septimus sighed. “Of course you can’t, Beetle. Because you’re the one it’s Attached to.”
Beetle gave a little jump. “Where? Where is it attached? Get it off me!”
“It’s not stuck to you, Beet. It’s following you.”
“Sheesh. How did that happen?”
“It used your dad as bait. When you were with your dad you must have freely given it something of yours.”
“I didn’t give it anything. I’m not that stupid, Sep.”
“Not knowingly. But perhaps you reached out to your dad; put your hand on his, you know, something like that. And the Spectre would have put its hand there instead. And so you will have given it your hand. Freely.”
“Oh. I do remember he felt really cold one time. Sheesh, Sep. There’s no way I can go back to the Manuscriptorium with a Spectre. Can you imagine if it got into the Hermetic Chamber?”
Septimus could imagine all too well how a malign Spectre would disrupt the delicate balance of the ancient Chamber. The Manuscriptorium had a good anti-Spectre security system, but Septimus was fairly sure it would not be proof against an Entity attached to its Chief Hermetic Scribe.
They walked on in silence and as they approached the Castle Drawbridge, Beetle said, “I can’t cross. I can’t bring this thing in with me. Sheesh, Sep. I was right. This was a nasty, mean low down trick. How could Dad do this to me?”
“Don’t blame your dad, Beetle; he wouldn’t have known. And he was desperate to see you. Spectres use desperation. They love it.”
“Yeah. Maybe. But now, thanks to him, I can’t go back to my job. I can’t even go home. Ever again. Basically, he’s ruined my life.”
Beetle was a few years older than Septimus but right then Septimus felt the roles were reversed. “Don’t be daft,” he told him. “Luckily I’ve Seen the Spectre. It wasn’t counting on that, you can be sure. And I’ll tell you what else it wasn’t counting on too.”
“What?” asked Beetle, glancing anxiously around.
Septimus grinned. “Yesterday I got an A star in Spectre Removal Theory. So now I get to do the practical. And luckily we have the perfect situation here—moving water to create a barrier between you. So just walk across the drawbridge and by the time you’re giving Gringe his silver penny the Spectre will be gone. Ok?”
“Really? Oh, thanks, Sep. Sorry I got a bit dramatic.”
“No worries, Beet. It’s been a bit of a night.”
“Yep. You could say that.” They had stopped now at the edge of the bridge where the thick iron-edged planks touched the massive landing stone. “So I just walk over as normal?”
“Totally as normal. But don’t look back. Whatever you do, don’t look back. You mustn’t give it a chance to make eye contact.”
Beetle gulped. “Right. I’ll go then.” He grinned. “See you on the other side, Sep.”
“See you, Beetle.”
Septimus watched his friend stride onto the bridge, his long, blue coat with its gold flashes billowing out behind him. Then, as the Spectre drifted after his Attachment, Septimus summoned all his courage and stepped in front of it. The sudden blast of deep cold took his breath away. Quickly, before his breath froze in his lungs, Septimus began the Tie-Break—the Incantation that would break the Attachment.
The Spectre did not go quietly. It threw a great gust of howling wind at Septimus, and then a blizzard of ice, which whirled around him, stabbing at him like a storm of needles. But Septimus was not to be deflected; he continued the Incantation and on the very last word the Spectre gave a howl like a wolf and went spinning up into the air. On his way he briefly grabbed hold of Septimus and hissed, “I shall see you, Apprentice. I shall see you, but you will not see me.” The Spectre gave a deep, hollow laugh and dived gracefully into the dark waters of the Moat.
Septimus knew that to defeat a Spectre you must always have the last word—which preferably should be a question that it cannot answer. “When?” he yelled at the disappearing Entity. “When will you see me?”
A few bubbles rose to the surface and Septimus was sure he heard a voice saying, “That, Apprentice, is for me to know and you to wonder.”
It was an autumn afternoon in the Castle. A sharpness in the air announced the time of year when the season turns towards winter, but in the straggle of gardens on the rooftops of the Ramblings, warmth deep in the stones kept the chill at bay.
Septimus Heap, sixteen years old, with deep green eyes and long straw-coloured hair tied back into a ponytail, was an uncomfortable guest in one of the smaller gardens. He was sitting on a spiky patch of camomile, wedged against a low parapet, which was all that separated the garden—and, more worryingly, him—from a two hundred foot drop to the sluggish brown waters of the river below. Trying to ignore the chasm behind him, Septimus was fixing his attention upon the almost translucent face of an ethereal looking young woman. Her name was Syrah Syara. Painfully thin, she wore a long dress of an indeterminate colour as washed-out as she was. To Septimus’s concern, she sat carelessly upon the parapet, gazing past Septimus to distant blue hills on the horizon.
Syrah was no stranger to the Castle. Some five hundred years ago she had been the ExtraOrdinary Apprentice, just as Septimus was now. However, all had not gone well for Syrah. After drawing the Questing Stone, she had spent many lifetimes on a distant island, Possessed by an entity called the Syren. A few years back, Syrah had been rescued by Septimus and taken to the safety of the Wizard Tower, but despite the best efforts of the ExtraOrdinary Wizard, Marcia Overstrand and a State-of-the-Art DisEnchanting Chamber, Sarah had not entirely recovered.
It had been a hard lesson for Septimus to learn—that Magyk and Physik could not fix everything, but he now understood that the fragile Syrah would never be fully in this world. Indeed, Marcia had warned him that one day Syrah would drift away completely. “It is a lesson for us all, Septimus,” Marcia had told him sombrely, “That Darke Magyk takes its toll. Let us hope it is a price that neither of us will ever be called to pay.”
So now all that Septimus cared about was that Syrah was as content as it was possible for her to be. “Syrah, are you well today?” he asked, gently. Septimus wished Syrah would meet his eye just once, but she always looked anywhere but at him. At last Syrah’s answer came, her words as wispy and flyaway as her fine, brown hair. “The sea thrift does not thrive,” she murmured in a voice that sounded as though it came from miles away.
“Ah,” Septimus murmured. There was a sad little clump of sea thrift beside his left boot that he had, to his embarrassment, trodden on as he sat down. But Septimus suspected it was not the plant that Syrah was talking about. It was herself.
“It has been scorched by the sun,” Syrah spoke slowly as if trying to work out the sense of her own words. “It has been battered by the wind. And now it is tired.”
Septimus leaned over to Syrah and placed his hand upon hers. It felt cold and full of bones, like the wing of a dead bird. “It just needs to rest a little more,” he said. “That’s all.”
Syrah slipped her thin fingers out from under Septimus’s broad hand and fluttered them up to a wisp of her hair and began twisting it. An unsettling memory had flitted through her mind, as it so often did when Septimus came to see her:
She is sitting on a rock and he is beside her. There is salt in the air and the sound of the waves far below. She is gazing out to sea, feeling so happy that at last she is not alone. And then the terror comes and she is away, running, running, running. Reeled in towards a nameless horror …
Septimus could see in her eyes what she was thinking. “Syrah,” he said quietly. “You are free now. You will never have to run to the Syren again. I promise.”
Syrah leaned down and picked a strand of the sea thrift that Septimus had planted in her garden to try to make her feel at home. She rolled the pink flower between her fingers and Septimus said no more. He gazed over the patchwork of tiny gardens and ramshackle terraces that covered the flat roofs of the Ramblings. The mellow stone of the Ramblings glowed in the late afternoon sun and the happy voices drifting up from the streets far below were such a contrast to the sadness he felt with Syrah. He looked at her once again and to his surprise saw the slow dawn of a smile. “Thank you, Septimus,” she said. “I shall sleep now.”
And she handed him her strand of sea thrift.
And here is a lovely piece from Divya Iyer about why Septimus Heap means so much. click here