Boy 412 sat back down, wrapped his quilt around him and somewhat warily drank the hot milk and ate his buttered toast. In between sips of milk and mouthfuls of toast he glanced around him, his dark gray eyes wide with apprehension.

Aunt Zelda settled herself down on an old chair beside the fire and threw a few logs onto the embers. Soon the fire was blazing, and Aunt Zelda sat contentedly warming her hands by the flames. Boy 412 glanced at Aunt Zelda whenever he thought she wouldn’t notice. Of course she did notice, but she was used to looking after frightened and injured creatures, and she saw Boy 412 as no different from the assortment of marsh animals that she regularly nursed back to health. In fact, he particularly reminded her of a small and very frightened rabbit she had rescued from the clutches of a Marsh Lynx not long ago. The Lynx had been taunting the rabbit for hours, nipping its ears and throwing it about, enjoying the rabbit’s frozen terror before it would eventually decide to break its neck. When, in an overenthusiastic throw, the Lynx had hurled the terrified animal into her path, Aunt Zelda had snatched the rabbit up, stuffed it into the large bag she always took out with her and gone straight home, leaving the Lynx wandering around for hours searching for its lost prey.

That rabbit had spent days sitting by the fire looking at her in just the same way that Boy 412 was now. Aunt Zelda reflected as she busied herself with the fire, careful not to frighten Boy 412 by looking at him for very long, the rabbit had recovered, and she was sure Boy 412 would too.

Boy 412’s sidelong glances took in Aunt Zelda’s frizzy gray hair, rosy cheeks, comfortable smile and friendly witch’s brilliant blue eyes. He needed quite a few glances to take in her large patchwork dress, which made it hard to tell exactly what shape she might be, especially when she was sitting down. It gave Boy 412 the impression that Aunt Zelda had walked into a large patchwork tent and had just, that very minute, poked her head out of the top to see what was going on. Briefly, a smile flickered at the corner of his mouth at the thought.

Aunt Zelda noticed the hint of a smile and was pleased. She had never in her life seen such a pinched and frightened-looking child, and it upset her to think about what could have made Boy 412 become that way. She had heard talk about the Young Army in her occasional visits to the Port, but she had never really believed all the terrible stories she had heard. Surely no one could treat children in such a way? But now she began to wonder whether there was more truth in them than she had realized.

Aunt Zelda smiled at Boy 412; then with a comfortable groan she heaved herself out of the chair and pottered off to fetch some more hot milk.

While she was gone Nicko and Jenna woke up. Boy 412 stared at them and moved away a little, remembering only too well Jenna’s armlock of the night before. But Jenna just smiled sleepily at him and said, “Did you sleep well?”

Boy 412 nodded and stared at his almost empty mug of milk.

Nicko sat up, grunted a hello in Jenna and Boy 412’s direction, grabbed a slice of toast and was surprised to find how hungry he was. Aunt Zelda arrived back at the fireside carrying a jug of hot milk.

“Nicko!” Aunt Zelda smiled. “Well, you’ve changed a bit since I last saw you, that’s for sure. You were just a little baby then. Those were the days when I used to visit your ma and pa in The Ramblings. Happy days.”

Aunt Zelda sighed and passed Nicko his hot milk.

“And our Jenna!”—Aunt Zelda smiled a broad smile at her—“I always wanted to come and see you, but things became very difficult after the…well, after a while. But Silas has been making up for lost time and telling me all about you.”

Jenna smiled a little shyly, glad that Aunt Zelda had said “our.” She took the mug of hot milk that Aunt Zelda offered her and sat sleepily looking at the fire.

A contented silence fell for a while, broken only by the sound of Silas and Maxie still snoring upstairs and toast being munched downstairs. Jenna, who was leaning against the wall by the fire, thought she could hear a faint sound of meowing from inside the wall, but as that was obviously impossible, she decided it must be coming from outside and ignored it. But the meowing continued. It became steadily louder and, thought Jenna, crosser. She put her ear to the wall and heard the distinctive sounds of an angry cat.

“There’s a cat in the wall…” said Jenna.

“Go on,” said Nicko. “I don’t know that one.”

“It’s not a joke. There is a cat in the wall. I can hear it.”

Aunt Zelda jumped up.

“Oh, my. I completely forgot about Bert! Jenna love, could you just open Bert’s door for her, please?” Jenna looked confused.

Aunt Zelda pointed to a small wooden door set into the bottom of the wall beside Jenna. Jenna tugged at the little door. It flew open, and out waddled an angry duck.

“I’m so sorry, Bert darling,” apologized Aunt Zelda. “Have you been waiting for ages?”

Bert waddled unsteadily over the heap of quilts and sat herself down by the fire. The duck was cross. It very deliberately turned her back on Aunt Zelda and ruffled its feathers. Aunt Zelda leaned over and stroked her.

“Let me introduce you to my cat, Bert,” she said.

Three pairs of bewildered eyes stared at Aunt Zelda. Nicko inhaled his milk and started choking. Boy 412 looked disappointed. He was just starting to like Aunt Zelda and now it turned out she was as mad as the rest of them.

“But Bert’s a duck,” said Jenna. She was thinking that someone had to say it, and they had better say it straight away before they all got into the let’s-pretend-the-duck’s-a-cat-just-to-humor-Aunt-Zelda thing.

“Ah, yes. Well, of course she is a duck at the moment. In fact, she has been a duck for a while now, haven’t you, Bert?”

Bert gave a small meow.

“You see, ducks can fly and swim and that is a great advantage in the marshes. And I have yet to meet a cat who enjoys getting her feet wet, and Bert was no exception. So she decided to become a duck and enjoy the water. And you do, don’t you, Bert?”

There was no answer. Like the cat she really was, Bert had fallen asleep by the fire.

Jenna tentatively stroked the duck’s feathers, wondering if they felt like cat fur, but they were soft and smooth and felt entirely like duck feathers.

“Hello, Bert,” whispered Jenna.

Nicko and Boy 412 said nothing. Neither of them was about to start talking to a duck.

“Poor old Bert,” said Aunt Zelda. “She often gets stuck outside. But ever since the Quake Ooze Brownies got in through the cat tunnel I’ve tried to keep the cat door CharmLocked. You have no idea what a shock it was to come downstairs that morning and find the place heaving with those nasty little creatures, like a sea of mud they were, swarming up the walls and poking their long bony fingers into everything and staring at me with those little red eyes. They ate everything they could and messed up anything else they couldn’t. And then, of course, as soon as they saw me they started all that high-pitched screaming.” Aunt Zelda shuddered. “It set my teeth on edge for weeks. If it hadn’t been for Boggart, I don’t know what I would have done. I spent weeks cleaning the mud off the books, not to mention making up all my potions again. Talking of mud, would anyone like a dip in the hot spring?”

A little later, Jenna and Nicko felt a lot cleaner after Aunt Zelda had shown them where the hot spring bubbled up into the little bath hut in the backyard. Boy 412 had refused to have anything to do with it and had stayed huddled by the fire, his red hat crammed down over his ears and his sailor’s sheepskin jacket still wrapped around him. Boy 412 felt as if the cold of the previous day was still deep in his bones, and he thought he would never again feel warm. Aunt Zelda let him sit by the fire for a while, but when Jenna and Nicko decided to go out and explore the island she shooed Boy 412 out with them.

“Here, take this,” Aunt Zelda said, handing Nicko a lantern. Nicko gave Aunt Zelda a quizzical look. What were they going to need a lantern for at midday?

“Haar,” said Aunt Zelda.

“Ha?” asked Nicko.

“Haar. Because of the haar, the salt marsh mist that rolls in from the sea,” explained Aunt Zelda. “Look, we’re surrounded by it today.” She waved her hand around in a grand sweep. “On a clear day you can see the Port from where we’re standing. The haar’s lying low today, and we’re high enough to be above it, but if it rises it’ll come over us too. Then you’ll need the lantern.”

Angie Sage Books | Fantasy Books | Septimus Heap Series Books