“I used to see her every year,” said Aunt Zelda. “Until she…well, until things changed. And her mother, your lovely grandmother, I saw her every year too.”
Mother, grandmother…Jenna began to realize she had a whole family that she knew nothing about. But somehow Aunt Zelda did.
“Aunt Zelda,” said Jenna slowly, daring at last to ask a question that had been bothering her ever since she had learned who she really was.
“Hmm?” Aunt Zelda was gazing out across the marsh.
“What about my father?”
“Your father? Ah, he was from the Far Countries. He left before you were born.”
“He had a boat. He went off to get something or other,” said Aunt Zelda vaguely. “He arrived back at the Port just after you were born with a ship full of treasures for you and your mother, so I heard. But when he was told the terrible news, he sailed away on the next tide.”
“What—what was his name?” asked Jenna.
“No idea,” said Aunt Zelda who, along with most people, had paid little attention to the identity of the Queen’s consort. The Succession was passed from mother to daughter, leaving the men in the family to live their lives as they pleased.
Something in Aunt Zelda’s voice caught Jenna’s attention, and she turned away from the stars to look at her. Jenna caught her breath. She had never really noticed Aunt Zelda’s eyes before, but now the bright piercing blue of the White Witch’s eyes was cutting through the night, shining through the darkness and staring intently out at the marsh.
“Right,” said Aunt Zelda suddenly, “time to go inside.”
“I’ll tell you more in the summer. That’s when they used to come, MidSummer Day. I’ll take you there too.”
“Where?” asked Jenna. “Take me where?”
“Come on,” said Aunt Zelda. “I don’t like the look of that shadow over there…”
Aunt Zelda grabbed Jenna’s hand and ran back with her across the snow. Out on the marsh a ravenous Marsh Lynx stopped stalking and turned away. It was too weak now to give chase; had it been a few days earlier, it could have eaten well and seen the winter through. But now the Lynx slunk back to its snow hole and weakly chewed at its last frozen mouse.
After the Dark of the Moon, the first thin sliver of the new moon appeared in the sky. Each night it grew a little bigger. The skies were clear now that the snow had stopped falling, and every night Jenna watched the moon from the window, while the Shield Bugs moved dreamily in the Preserve Pots, waiting for their moment of freedom.
“Keep watching,” Aunt Zelda told her. “As the moon grows it draws up the things from the ground. And the cottage draws in the people that wish to come here. The pull is strongest at the full moon, which is when you came.”
But when the moon was a quarter full, Marcia had left.
“How come Marcia’s gone?” Jenna asked Aunt Zelda the morning they discovered her departure. “I thought things came back when the moon was growing, not went away.”
Aunt Zelda looked somewhat grumpy at Jenna’s question. She was annoyed with Marcia for going so suddenly, and she didn’t like anyone messing up her moon theories either.
“Sometimes,” Aunt Zelda said mysteriously, “things must leave in order to return.” She stomped off into her potion cupboard and firmly locked the door behind her.
Nicko made a sympathetic face at Jenna and waved her pair of skates at her.
“Race you to Big Bog.” He grinned.
“Last one there’s a dead rat.” Jenna laughed.
Stanley woke up with a start at the words “dead rat” and opened his eyes just in time to see Nicko and Jenna grab their skates and disappear for the day.
By the time the full moon arrived and Marcia had still not returned, everyone was very worried.
“I told Marcia to sleep on it,” said Aunt Zelda, “but oh, no, she gets herself all worked up over Silas and just ups and goes in the middle of the night. Not a word since. It really is too bad. I can understand Silas not getting back, what with the Big Freeze, but not Marcia.”
“She might come back tonight,” ventured Jenna, “seeing as it’s the full moon.”
“She might,” said Aunt Zelda, “or she might not.”
Marcia, of course, did not return that night. She spent it as she had spent the last ten nights, in the middle of the Vortex of Shadows and Shades, lying weakly in the pool of filthy water at the bottom of Dungeon Number One. Sitting next to her was Alther Mella, using all the ghostly Magyk he could to help keep Marcia alive. People rarely survived the actual fall into Dungeon Number One, and if they did, they did not last long, but soon sank below the foul water to join the bones that lay just beneath the surface. Without Alther, there is no doubt that the same fate would have befallen Marcia eventually.
That night, the night of the full moon, as the sun set and the moon rose in the sky, Jenna and Aunt Zelda wrapped themselves up in some quilts and kept watch at the window for Marcia. Jenna soon fell asleep, but Aunt Zelda kept watch all night until the rising of the sun and the setting of the full moon put an end to any faint hopes she may have had of Marcia returning.
The next day, the Message Rat decided he was strong enough to leave. There was a limit to how much pureed eel even a rat could stomach, and Stanley thought he had well and truly reached that limit.
However, before Stanley could leave, he either had to be commanded with another message or released with no message. So that morning he coughed a polite cough and said, “Excuse me, all.” Everyone looked at the rat. He had been very quiet while he was recovering, and they were unused to hearing him speak.
“It is time I returned to the Rat Office. I am already somewhat overdue. But I must ask, Do you require me to take a message?”
“Dad!” said Jenna. “Take one to Dad!”
“Who might Dad be?” asked the rat. “And where is he to be found?”
“We don’t know,” said Aunt Zelda snappily. “There is no message, thank you, Message Rat. You are released.”
Stanley bowed, very much relieved.
“Thank you, Madam,” he said. “And, ahem, thank you for your kindness. All of you. I am very grateful.”
They all watched the rat run off over the snow, leaving small footprints and tailprints behind him.
“I wish we had sent a message,” said Jenna wistfully.
“Best not,” Aunt Zelda said. “There’s something not quite right about that rat. Something different from last time.”
“Well, he was a lot thinner,” Nicko pointed out.
“Hmm,” murmured Aunt Zelda. “Something’s up. I can feel it.”
Stanley had a good trip back to the Castle. It wasn’t until he reached the Rat Office that things started to go wrong. He scampered up the recently defrosted drainpipe and knocked on the Rat Office door.
“Come in!” barked the black rat, only just back on duty after a belated rescue from the frozen Rat Office.
Stanley sidled in, well aware that he was going to have some explaining to do.
“You!” thundered the black rat. “At last. How dare you make a fool of me. Are you aware how long you have been away?”
“Er…two months,” muttered Stanley. He was only too well aware how long he had been away and was beginning to wonder what Dawnie would have to say about it.
“Er…two months, sir!” yelled the black rat, thumping his tail on the desk in anger. “Are you aware just how stupid you have made me look?”
Stanley said nothing, thinking that at least some good had come out of his ghastly trip.
“You will pay for this,” bellowed the black rat. “I will personally see that you never get another job as long as I am in charge here.”
“But, sir!” the black rat screamed. “What did I tell you? Call me sir!”
Stanley was silent. There were many things he could think of calling the black rat, but “sir” was not one of them. Suddenly Stanley was aware of something behind him. He wheeled around to find himself staring at the largest pair of muscle-bound rats he had ever seen. They stood threateningly in the Rat Office doorway, cutting out the light and also any chance that Stanley might have had of making a run for it, which he suddenly felt an overpowering urge to do.