So Nicko took the lantern and, surrounded by the haar, which lay like an undulating white blanket over the marshes below, they set off to explore the island while Aunt Zelda, Silas and Marcia sat inside talking earnestly by the fireside.
Jenna led the way, closely followed by Nicko, while Boy 412 lagged behind, shivering every now and then and wishing he was back by the fire. The snow had melted in the warmer, damper marsh climate, and the ground was damp and soggy. Jenna took a path that led them down to the banks of the Mott. The tide had dropped and the water had all but disappeared, leaving marsh mud behind it, which was covered with hundreds of bird footprints and a few zigzag water snake trails.
Draggen Island itself was about a quarter of a mile long and looked as if someone had cut a huge green egg in half length-ways and plopped it down on top of the marsh. A footpath ran all the way around it along the bank of the Mott, and Jenna set off along the path, breathing in the cold salt air rolling in from the haar. Jenna liked the haar surrounding them. It made her feel safe at last—no one could find them now.
Apart from the boat-dwelling chickens, which Jenna and Nicko had seen earlier that morning, they found a nanny goat tethered in the middle of some long grass. They also found a colony of rabbits living in a burrow bank that Aunt Zelda had fenced off to keep the rabbits out of the winter cabbage patch.
The well-worn path took them past the burrows, through a lot of cabbages and wound down to a low-lying patch of mud and suspiciously bright green grass.
“Do you reckon there might be some of those Brownies in there?” Jenna whispered to Nicko, hanging back a little.
Some bubbles floated to the surface of the mud, and there was a loud sucking noise as if someone was trying to pull a stuck boot from out of the mire. Jenna jumped back in alarm as the mud bubbled and heaved.
“Not if I’ve got anything ter do with it, there won’t be.” The broad brown face of the Boggart pushed its way to the surface. He blinked the Ooze away from his round black eyes and regarded them with a bleary gaze.
“Mornin’,” he said slowly.
“Good morning, Mr. Boggart,” said Jenna.
“Just Boggart’ll do, ta.”
“Is this where you live? I hope we’re not disturbing you?” Jenna said politely.
“Well you is disturbing me, as a matter of fact. I sleeps in the day, see.” The Boggart blinked again and began to sink back into the mud. “But you’s not ter know that. Just don’t mention them Brownies as it wakes me up, see. Just hearin’ the name gets me all wide awake.”
“I’m sorry,” said Jenna. “We’ll go away and leave you in peace.”
“Yeah,” agreed the Boggart, and he disappeared back into the mud.
Jenna, Nicko and Boy 412 tiptoed back up the path.
“He was cross, wasn’t he?” said Jenna.
“No,” said Nicko. “I reckon he’s always like that. He’s okay.”
“I hope so,” said Jenna.
They carried on walking around the island until they reached the blunt end of the green “egg.” This consisted of a large grassy mound covered with a scattering of small, prickly round bushes. They wandered across the mound and stopped for a while, watching the haar swirling below them.
Jenna and Nicko had been silent in case they should wake the Boggart up again, but as they stood on top of the mound Jenna said, “Don’t you think there’s a funny feeling under your feet?”
“My boots are a bit uncomfortable,” said Nicko, “now you mention it. I think they’re still wet.”
“No. I mean the ground under your feet. It feels kind of…er…”
“Hollow,” supplied Nicko.
“Yes, that’s it. Hollow.” Jenna stamped her foot down hard. The ground was firm enough, but there was something about it that felt different.
“Must be all those rabbit burrows,” said Nicko.
They wandered off down the mound and headed toward a large duck pond with a wooden duck house beside it. A few ducks noticed them and began to waddle over the grass in the hope that they might have brought some bread with them.
“Hey, where’s he gone?” Jenna suddenly said, looking around for Boy 412.
“He’s probably gone back to the cottage,” said Nicko. “I don’t think he likes being with us much.”
“No, I don’t think he does—but aren’t we meant to be looking after him? I mean, he might have fallen into the Boggart patch, or the ditch or a Brownie might have got him.”
“Shhh. You’ll wake the Boggart up again.”
“Well, a Brownie might have got him. We ought to try and find him.”
“I suppose,” said Nicko doubtfully, “that Aunt Zelda will be upset if we lose him.”
“Well, I will too,” said Jenna.
“You don’t like him, do you?” asked Nicko. “Not after the little twerp nearly got us killed?”
“He didn’t mean to,” said Jenna. “I can see that now. He was as scared as we were. And just think, he’s probably been in the Young Army all his life and never had a mum or dad. Not like us. I mean you,” Jenna corrected herself.
“You have had a mum and dad. Still have. Silly,” said Nicko. “All right, we’ll go and look for the kid if you really want to.”
Jenna looked around, wondering where to start, and realized she could no longer see the cottage. In fact she could no longer see much at all except for Nicko, and that was only because his lantern gave off a low red light.
The haar had risen.
Boy 412 had fallen down a hole. He hadn’t meant to, and he had no idea how it had happened, but there he was, at the bottom of a hole.
Just before he had fallen down the hole, Boy 412 had become decidedly fed up with trailing around after the Princess-girl and the Wizard-boy. They didn’t seem to want him with them, and he felt cold and bored. So he had decided to slip off back to the cottage and hoped that he might get Aunt Zelda to himself for a while.
And then the haar had come in.
If nothing else, the Young Army training had prepared him for something like this. Many times, in the middle of a foggy night, his platoon of boys had been taken out into the Forest and left to find their own way back. Not all of them did, of course. There was always one unlucky boy who fell foul of a hungry wolverine or was left lingering in a trap set by one of the Wendron Witches, but Boy 412 had been lucky, and he knew how to keep quiet and move fast through the night fog. And so, quiet as the haar itself, Boy 412 had started to make his way back to the cottage. At some point he had actually passed so close to Nicko and Jenna that they could have put their hands out and touched him, but he had slipped by them noiselessly, enjoying his freedom and the feeling of independence.
After a while Boy 412 reached the large grassy mound at the end of the island. This confused him because he was sure he had already walked across it, and by now he should have been nearly back at the cottage. Maybe this was a different grassy mound? Maybe there was one at the other end of the island too? He began to wonder if he might be lost. It occurred to him that it would be possible to walk endlessly around and around the island and never get to the cottage. Preoccupied with his thoughts, Boy 412 lost his footing and fell headlong into a small, and unpleasantly prickly, bush. And that was when it had happened. One moment the bush was there, and the next moment Boy 412 had crashed through it and was falling into darkness.
His yell of surprise was lost on the thick damp air of the haar, and he landed with a heavy thud on his back. Winded, Boy 412 lay still for a moment, wondering if he had broken any bones. No, he thought as he sat up slowly, nothing seemed to hurt too much. He was lucky. He had landed on what felt like sand, and it had cushioned his fall. Boy 412 stood up and promptly hit his head on a low rock above him. That did hurt.
Holding the top of his head with one hand, Boy 412 stretched up his other hand and tried to feel for the hole he had fallen through, but the rock sloped smoothly upward and gave him no clues, no handholds or footholds. Nothing but silk-smooth, ice-cold rock.
It was also pitch-black. No chink of light shone from above, and however much Boy 412 stared into the darkness hoping his eyes would get used to it, they didn’t. It was as though he was blind.
Boy 412 dropped to his hands and knees and began to feel about him on the sandy floor. He had a wild thought that maybe he could dig his way out, but as his fingers scrabbled the sand away he soon hit a smooth stone floor, so smooth and cold that Boy 412 wondered if it might be marble. He had seen marble a few times when he had stood guard at the Palace, but he couldn’t imagine what it might be doing out here in the Marram Marshes in the middle of nowhere.