“I don’t know what else he thinks we can do,” Jenna said to Nicko as they paddled the canoe along the increasingly narrow ditch. “It’s not as if there’s anywhere else to go.”
But the Boggart took his duties seriously and kept going with the same question until they reached a small marsh pool with several overgrown channels leading off it.
“Best wait for the others,” said the Boggart. “Don’t want ’em gettin’ lost.”
Jenna glanced back to see where Marcia and Silas had got to. They were far behind now, as Silas was the only one paddling. Marcia had given up and had both hands clamped firmly to the top of her head. Behind her the long and pointy snout of an Abyssinian wolfhound loftily surveyed the scene before him and let drop the occasional long strand of glistening dribble. Straight onto Marcia’s head.
As Silas propelled the canoe into the pool and wearily laid his paddle down, Marcia declared, “I am not sitting in front of that animal one moment longer. There’s dog dribble all over my hair. It’s disgusting. I’m getting out. I’d rather walk.”
“You don’t wanter be doin’ that, Yer Majesty,” came the Boggart’s voice from out of the water beside Marcia. He gazed up at Marcia, his bright black eyes blinking through his brown fur, amazed by her ExtraOrdinary Wizard belt that glinted in the moonlight. Although he was a creature of the marsh mud, the Boggart loved bright and shiny things. And he had never seen such a bright and shiny thing as Marcia’s gold and platinum belt.
“You don’t wanter be walkin’ round ’ere, Yer Majesty,” the Boggart told her respectfully. “You’ll start followin’ the Marshfire, and it’ll lead you into the Quake Ooze before you know it. There’s many as has followed the Marshfire and there’s none as has returned.”
A rumbling growl was coming from deep down in Maxie’s throat. The fur on the back of his neck stood up, and suddenly, obeying an old and compelling wolfhound instinct, Maxie leaped into the water after the Boggart.
“Maxie! Maxie! Oh, you stupid dog,” yelled Silas.
The water in the pool was freezing. Maxie yelped and frantically dog-paddled back to Silas’s and Marcia’s canoe.
Marcia shoved him away.
“That dog is not getting back in here,” she announced.
“Marcia, he’ll freeze,” protested Silas.
“I don’t care.”
“Here, Maxie. C’mon boy,” said Nicko. He grabbed Maxie’s neckerchief and, with Jenna’s help, hauled the dog into their canoe. The canoe tipped dangerously, but Boy 412, who had no desire to end up in the water like Maxie, steadied it by grabbing hold of a tree root.
Maxie stood shivering for a moment, then he did what any wet dog has to do: he shook himself.
“Maxie!” gasped Nicko and Jenna.
Boy 412 said nothing. He didn’t like dogs at all. The only dogs he had ever known were the vicious Custodian Guard Dogs, and although he could see that Maxie looked nothing like them, he still expected him to bite at any moment. And so when Maxie settled down, laid his head on Boy 412’s lap and went to sleep, it was just another very bad moment in Boy 412’s worst day ever. But Maxie was happy. Boy 412’s sheepskin jacket was warm and comfortable, and the wolfhound spent the rest of the journey dreaming that he was back at home curled up in front of the fire with all the other Heaps.
But the Boggart had gone.
“Boggart? Where are you, Mr. Boggart?” Jenna called out politely.
There was no reply. Just the deep silence that comes to the marshes when a blanket of snow covers the bogs and quags, silences their gurgles and gloops and sends all the slimy creatures back into the stillness of the mud.
“Now we’ve lost that nice Boggart because of your stupid animal,” Marcia told Silas crossly. “I don’t know why you had to bring him.”
Silas sighed. Sharing a canoe with Marcia Overstrand was not something he had ever imagined he would have to do. But if he had, in a mad moment, ever imagined it, this was exactly how it would have been.
Silas scanned the horizon in the hope that he might be able to see Keeper’s Cottage, where Aunt Zelda lived. The cottage stood on Draggen Island, one of the many islands in the marsh, which became true islands only when the marshland flooded. But all Silas could see was white flatness stretching out before him in all directions. To make matters worse, he could see the marsh mist beginning to rise up and drift across the water, and he knew that if the mist came in they would never see Keeper’s Cottage, however close they might be to it.
Then he remembered that the cottage was Enchanted. Which meant that no one could see it anyway.
If they ever needed the Boggart, it was now.
“I can see a light!” said Jenna, suddenly. “It must be Aunt Zelda coming to look for us. Look, over there!”
All eyes followed Jenna’s pointing finger.
A flickering light was jumping over the marshes, as if bounding from tussock to tussock.
“She’s coming toward us,” said Jenna, excited.
“No, she’s not,” Nicko said. “Look, she’s going away.”
“Perhaps we ought to go and meet her,” said Silas.
Marcia was not convinced. “How can you be sure it’s Zelda?” she said. “It could be anyone. Anything.”
Everyone fell silent at the thought of a thing with a light coming toward them, until Silas said, “It is Zelda. Look, I can see her.”
“No, you can’t,” said Marcia. “It’s Marshfire, like that very intelligent Boggart said.”
“Marcia, I know Zelda when I see her, and I can see her now. She’s carrying a light. She’s come all this way to find us and we are just sitting here. I’m going to meet her.”
“They say that fools see what they want to see in Marshfire,” said Marcia tartly, “and you’ve just proved that saying true, Silas.”
Silas made to get out of the canoe, and Marcia grabbed his cloak.
“Sit!” she said as though she was talking to Maxie.
But Silas pulled away, half in a dream, drawn to the flickering light and the shadow of Aunt Zelda that appeared and disappeared through the rising mist. Sometimes she was tantalizingly near, about to find them all and lead them to a warm fire and a soft bed, sometimes fading away sorrowfully and inviting them to follow and be with her. But Silas could no longer bear to be away from the light. He climbed out of the canoe and stumbled off toward the flickering glow.
“Dad!” yelled Jenna. “Can we come too?”
“No, you may not,” said Marcia firmly. “And I’m going to have to bring the silly old fool back.”
Marcia was just drawing breath for the Boomerang Spell when Silas tripped and fell headlong onto the boggy ground. As he lay winded, Silas felt the marsh beneath him begin to shift as though living things were stirring in the depths of the mud. And when he tried to get up, Silas found that he could not. It was as if he were glued to the ground. In his Marshfire daze, Silas was confused about why he seemed unable to move. He tried to lift his head to see what was happening but was unable to. It was then that he realized the awful truth: something was pulling at his hair.
Silas raised his hands to his head, and to his horror, he could feel little bony fingers in his hair, winding and knotting his long straggling curls around them and pulling, tugging him down into the bog. Desperately Silas struggled to get free, but the more he struggled, the more the fingers tangled themselves up in his hair. Slowly and steadily they pulled Silas down until the mud covered his eyes and soon, very soon, would cover his nose.
Marcia could see what was happening, but she knew better than to run to Silas’s aid.
“Dad!” yelled Jenna, getting out of the canoe. “I’ll help you, Dad.”
“No!” Marcia told her. “No. That’s how the Marshfire works. The bog will drag you down too.”
“But—but we can’t just watch Dad drown,” cried Jenna.
Suddenly a squat brown shape heaved itself out of the water, scrambled up the bank and, leaping expertly from tussock to tussock, ran toward Silas.
“What you doin’ in the Quake Ooze, sir?” said the Boggart crossly.
“Whaaa?” mumbled Silas whose ears were full of mud and could hear only the shrieking and wailing of the creatures in the bog beneath him. The bony fingers continued their pulling and twisting, and Silas was beginning to feel the painful cuts of razor-sharp teeth nipping at his head. He struggled frantically, but each struggle pulled him farther down into the Ooze and set off another wave of screeching.