The cottage was not big. There was one room downstairs; at one end was a huge open fireplace with a pile of gently smoldering logs still glowing on the hot stone hearth. Nicko and Boy 412 were fast asleep on the rug in front of the fire, each wrapped warmly in one of Aunt Zelda’s patchwork quilts. In the middle of the room was a flight of narrow stairs with a cupboard underneath, with the words UNSTABLE POTIONS AND PARTIKULAR POISONS written in flowing golden letters on the firmly closed door. She peered up the narrow stairs that led up to a large darkened room where Aunt Zelda, Marcia and Silas were still sleeping. And of course Maxie, whose snores and snuffles drifted down to Jenna. Or were they Silas’s snores and Maxie’s snuffles? When they were asleep, master and wolfhound sounded remarkably similar.
Downstairs the ceilings were low and showed the roughhewn beams that the cottage was built from. All manner of things were hung from these beams: boat paddles, hats, bags of shells, spades, hoes, sacks of potatoes, shoes, ribbons, brooms, bundles of reeds, willow knots and of course hundreds of bunches of the herbs that Aunt Zelda either grew herself or bought at the Magyk Market, which was held every year and a day down at the Port. As a White Witch, Aunt Zelda used herbs for charms and potions as well as medicine, and you’d be lucky to be able to tell Aunt Zelda anything about a herb that she did not know already.
Jenna gazed around her, loving the feeling of being the only one awake, free to wander undisturbed for a while. As she walked about, she thought how strange it was to be in a cottage with four walls all of its very own that were not joined to anyone else’s walls. It was so different from the hurly-burly of The Ramblings, but she already felt at home. Jenna carried on with her exploration, noticing the old but comfortable chairs, the well-scrubbed table that did not look as though it was about to roll over and die at any minute and, most strikingly, the newly swept stone floor that was empty. There was nothing on it apart from some worn rugs and, by the door, a pair of Aunt Zelda’s boots.
She peeked into the little built-on kitchen, with its large sink, some neat and tidy pots and pans and a small table, but it was far too cold to linger in. Then she wandered over to the end of the room where shelves of potion bottles and jars lined the walls, reminding her of home. There were some that she recognized and remembered Sarah using. Frog Fusions, Marvel Mixture and Basic Brew were all familiar names to Jenna. And then, just like home, surrounding a small desk covered with neat piles of pens, papers and notebooks, there were teetering piles of Magyk books reaching up to the ceiling. There were so many that they covered almost an entire wall, but unlike home, they did not cover the floor as well.
The dawn light was beginning to creep through the frost-covered windows, and Jenna decided to take a look outside. She tiptoed over to the big wooden door and very slowly drew back the huge, well-oiled bolt. Then she carefully pulled the door open, hoping that it wouldn’t creak. It didn’t, because Aunt Zelda, like all witches, was very particular about doors. A creaking door in the house of a White Witch was a bad sign, a sign of misplaced Magyk and ill-founded spells.
Jenna slipped quietly outside and sat on the doorstep with her quilt wrapped around her and her warm breath turning to white clouds in the chill dawn air. The marsh mist was heavy and low. It hugged the ground and swirled over the surface of the water and around a small wooden bridge that crossed a broad channel to the marsh on the other side. The water was brimming up over the banks of the channel, which was known as the Mott, and ran all the way around Aunt Zelda’s island like a moat. The water was dark and so flat that it looked as though a thin skin was stretched over its surface, and yet, as Jenna gazed at it she could see that the water was slowly creeping over the edges of the banks and wandering onto the island.
For years Jenna had watched the tides come and go, and she knew the tide that morning was a high spring tide after the full moon the night before, and she also knew that soon it would start to creep out again, just as it did in the river outside her little window at home, until it was as low as it had been high, leaving the mud and sand for the waterbirds to dip into with their long, curved beaks.
The pale white disk of the winter sun rose slowly through the thick blanket of mist, and around Jenna the silence began to change into the dawn sounds of stirring animals. A fussy clucking noise made Jenna jump in surprise and glance over to where the sound was coming from. To her amazement, Jenna could see the shape of a fishing boat looming through the mist.
For Jenna, who had seen more new and strange things in the last twenty-four hours than she had ever dreamed possible, a fishing boat crewed by chickens was not as much a surprise as it might have been. She just sat on the doorstep and waited for the boat to pass by. After a few minutes the boat appeared not to have moved, and she wondered if it had run aground on the island. A few minutes after that, when the mist had cleared a little more, she realized what it was: the fishing boat was a chicken house. Stepping delicately down the gangplank were a dozen hens, busily beginning the work of the day. Pecking and scratching, scratching and pecking.
Things, thought Jenna, are not always what they seem.
A thin, reedy birdcall drifted through the mist, and some muffled splashes were coming from the water, which sounded as though they belonged to small and, Jenna hoped, furry animals. It crossed her mind that they might be made by water snakes or eels, but she decided not to think about that. Jenna leaned back against the door post and breathed in the fresh, slightly salty marsh air. It was perfect. Peace and quiet.
“Boo!” said Nicko. “Got you, Jen!”
“Nicko,” protested Jenna. “You’re so noisy. Shhh.”
Nicko settled himself down on the doorstep next to Jenna and grabbed some of her quilt to wrap himself in.
“Please,” Jenna told him.
“Please, Jenna, may I share your quilt? Yes, you may, Nicko. Oh, thank you very much, Jenna, that’s very kind of you. Don’t mention it, Nicko.”
“All right, then, I won’t.” Nicko grinned. “And I suppose I have to curtsy to you now you’re Miss High and Mighty.”
“Boys don’t curtsy.” Jenna laughed. “You have to bow.”
Nicko leaped to his feet and, doffing an imaginary hat with a sweep of his arm, bowed an exaggerated bow. Jenna clapped.
“Very good. You can do that every morning.” She laughed again.
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” said Nicko gravely, stuffing his imaginary hat back on his head.
“I wonder where the Boggart is?” said Jenna a little sleepily.
Nicko yawned. “Probably at the bottom of some mud pool somewhere. I don’t suppose he’s tucked up in bed.”
“He’d hate it, wouldn’t he? Too dry and clean.”
“Well,” said Nicko, “I’m going back to bed. I need more than two hours sleep, even if you don’t.” He extricated himself from Jenna’s quilt and wandered back inside to his own, which lay in a crumpled heap by the fire. Jenna realized that she still felt tired too. Her eyelids were beginning to get that prickly feeling that told her she had not slept long enough, and she was getting cold. She stood up, gathered her quilt around her, slipped back into the half-light of the cottage and very quietly closed the door behind her.
Good morning, everyone!” Aunt Zelda’s cheery voice called out to the pile of quilts and their inhabitants by the fire. Boy 412 woke up in a panic, expecting to have to tumble out of his Young Army bed and line up outside in thirty seconds flat for roll call. He stared uncomprehendingly at Aunt Zelda, who looked nothing like his usual morning tormenter, the shaven-headed Chief Cadet, who took great pleasure in chucking buckets of icy water over anyone who didn’t jump out of bed immediately. The last time that had happened to Boy 412, he had had to sleep in a cold, wet bed for days before it dried out. Boy 412 leaped to his feet with a terrified look on his face but relaxed a little when he noticed that Aunt Zelda did not actually have a bucket of icy water in her hand. Rather, she was carrying a tray laden with mugs of hot milk and a huge pile of hot buttered toast.
“Now, young man,” said Aunt Zelda, “there’s no rush. Just snuggle yourself back down and drink this while it’s still hot.” She offered a mug of milk and the biggest slice of toast to Boy 412, who looked, she thought, like he could do with fattening up.