PYTHONS AND RATS
The morning after the arrival of the Big Freeze, Nicko opened the front door of the cottage to find a wall of snow before him. He set to work with Aunt Zelda’s coal shovel and dug a tunnel about six feet long through the snow and into the bright winter sun. Jenna and Boy 412 came out through the tunnel, blinking in the sunlight.
“It’s so bright,” said Jenna. She shaded her eyes against the snow, which glinted almost painfully with a sparkling frost. The Big Freeze had transformed the cottage into an enormous igloo. The marshland that surrounded them had become a wide arctic landscape, all the features changed by the windblown snowdrifts and the long shadows cast by the low winter sun. Maxie completed the picture by bounding out and rolling in the snow until he resembled an overexcited polar bear.
Jenna and Boy 412 helped Nicko dig a path down to the frozen Mott, then they raided Aunt Zelda’s large stock of brooms and began the task of sweeping the snow off the ice so that they could skate all around the Mott. Jenna made a start while the two boys threw snowballs at each other. Boy 412 turned out to be a good shot and Nicko ended up looking rather like Maxie.
The ice was already about six inches thick and was as smooth and slippery as glass. A myriad of tiny bubbles was suspended in the frozen water, giving the ice a slightly cloudy appearance, but it was still clear enough to see the frozen strands of grass trapped within it and to see what lay beneath. And what lay beneath Jenna’s feet as she swept away the first swathe of snow were the two unblinking yellow eyes of a giant snake, staring straight at her.
“Argh!” screamed Jenna.
“What’s that, Jen?” asked Nicko.
“Eyes. Snake eyes. There’s a massive snake underneath the ice.”
Boy 412 and Nicko came over.
“Wow. It’s huge,” Nicko said.
Jenna knelt down and scraped away some more snow.
“Look,” she said, “there’s its tail. Right by its head. It must stretch all around the Mott.”
“It can’t,” Nicko disagreed.
“I suppose there might be more than one.”
“Well, there’s only one way to find out.” Jenna picked up the broom and started sweeping. “Come on, get going,” she told the boys. Nicko and Boy 412 reluctantly picked up their brooms and got going.
By the end of the afternoon they had discovered that there was indeed only one snake.
“It must be about a mile long,” said Jenna as at last they got back to where they had started. The Marsh Python stared at them grumpily through the ice. It didn’t like being looked at, particularly by food. Although the snake preferred goats and lynxes, it regarded anything on legs as food and had occasionally partaken of the odd traveler, if one had been so careless as to fall into a ditch and splash around too much. But generally it avoided the two-legged kind; it found their numerous wrappings indigestible, and it particularly disliked boots.
The Big Freeze set in. Aunt Zelda settled down to wait it out, just as she did every year, and informed the impatient Marcia that there was no chance whatsoever of Silas returning with her KeepSafe now. The Marram Marshes were completely cut off. Marcia would just have to wait for the Big Thaw like everyone else.
But the Big Thaw showed no sign of coming. Every night the north wind brought yet another howling blizzard to pile the drifts even deeper.
The temperatures plummeted and the Boggart was frozen out of his mud patch. He retreated to the hot spring bath hut, where he dozed contentedly in the steam.
The Marsh Python lay trapped in the Mott. It made do with eating whatever unwary fish and eels came its way and dreaming of the day it would be free to swallow as many goats as it could manage.
Nicko and Jenna went skating. At first they were happy to circle around the iced-up Mott and irritate the Marsh Python, but after a while they began to venture into the white landscape of the marsh. They would spend hours racing along the frozen ditches, listening to the crackle of the ice beneath them and sometimes to the mournful howl of the wind as it threatened to bring yet another fall of snow. Jenna noticed that all the sounds of the marsh creatures had disappeared. Gone were the busy rustlings of the marsh voles and the quiet splishings of the water snakes. The Quake Ooze Brownies were safely frozen far below the ground and made not a single shriek between them, while the Water Nixies were fast asleep, their suckers frozen to the underside of the ice, waiting for the thaw.
Long, quiet weeks passed at Keeper’s Cottage and still the snow blew in from the north. While Jenna and Nicko spent hours outside skating and making ice slides around the Mott, Boy 412 stayed indoors. He still felt chilled if he stayed out for any length of time. It was as if some small part of him had not yet warmed through from the time he had been buried in the snow outside the Wizard Tower. Sometimes Jenna sat with him beside the fire. She liked Boy 412; although she didn’t know why, seeing as he never spoke to her. She didn’t take it personally, as Jenna knew he had not uttered a word to anyone since he had arrived at the cottage. Jenna’s main topic of conversation with him was Petroc Trelawney, who Boy 412 had taken a liking to.
Some afternoons Jenna would sit on the sofa beside Boy 412 while he watched her take the pet rock out of her pocket. Jenna would often sit by the fire with Petroc, as he reminded her of Silas. There was something about just holding the pebble that made her sure Silas would come back safely.
“Here, you hold Petroc,” Jenna would say, putting the smooth gray pebble into Boy 412’s grubby hand.
Petroc Trelawney liked Boy 412. He liked him because he was usually slightly sticky and smelled of food. Petroc Trelawney would stick out his four stumpy legs, open his eyes and lick Boy 412’s hand. Mmm, he’d think, not bad. He could definitely taste eel, and was there a hint of cabbage lingering as a subtle aftertaste? Petroc Trelawney liked eel and would give Boy 412’s palm another lick. His tongue was dry and slightly rasping, like a minute cat’s tongue, and Boy 412 would laugh. It tickled.
“He likes you.” Jenna would smile. “He’s never licked my hand.”
There were many days when Boy 412 just sat by the fire reading his way through Aunt Zelda’s stock of books, immersing himself in a whole new world. Before he came to Keeper’s Cottage, Boy 412 had never read a book. He had been taught to read in the Young Army but had only ever been allowed to read long lists of Enemies, Orders of the Day and Battle Plans. But now Aunt Zelda kept him supplied with a happy mixture of adventure stories and Magyk books, which Boy 412 soaked up like a sponge. It was on one of these days, almost six weeks into the Big Freeze, when Jenna and Nicko had decided to see whether they could skate all the way to the Port, that Boy 412 noticed something.
He already knew that every morning, for some reason, Aunt Zelda lit two lanterns and disappeared into the potion cupboard under the stairs. At first Boy 412 had thought nothing of it. After all, it was dark in the potion cupboard and Aunt Zelda had many potions to tend. He knew that the potions that needed to be kept in darkness were the most unstable and required constant attention; only the day before, Aunt Zelda had spent hours filtering a muddied Amazonian Antidote that had gone lumpy in the cold. But what Boy 412 noticed this particular morning was how quiet it was in the potion cupboard, and he knew that Aunt Zelda was not generally a quiet person. Whenever she walked past the Preserve Pots they rattled and jumped, and when she was in the kitchen the pots and pans clanged and banged; so how, wondered Boy 412, did she manage to be so quiet in the small confines of the potion cupboard? And why did she need two lanterns?
He put down his book and tiptoed over to the potion cupboard door. It was strangely silent considering it contained Aunt Zelda in close proximity to hundreds of little clinky bottles. Boy 412 knocked hesitantly on the door. There was no reply. He listened again. Silence. Boy 412 knew he should really just go back to his book but somehow Thaumaturgy and Sortilage: Why Bother? was not as interesting as what Aunt Zelda was up to. So Boy 412 pushed open the door and peered in.
The potion cupboard was empty.
For a moment, Boy 412 was half afraid that it was a joke and Aunt Zelda was going to jump out at him, but he soon realized that she was definitely not there. And then he saw why. The trapdoor was open, and the musty damp smell of the tunnel that Boy 412 remembered so well drifted up to him. Boy 412 hovered at the door, uncertain of what to do. It crossed his mind that Aunt Zelda might have fallen through the trapdoor by mistake and needed help, but he realized that if she had fallen, she would have got wedged halfway, as Aunt Zelda looked a good deal wider than the trapdoor did.