“I know,” agreed Aunt Zelda. “But maybe the Apprentice, er, Septimus will improve with time.”
“Maybe,” said Jenna doubtfully.
Sometime later, in the early hours of the morning, when Boy 412 had carefully tucked the green rock that Jenna gave him under his quilt to keep it warm and close to him—and just as they were at last settling down to sleep—there was a hesitant knock on the door.
Jenna sat up, scared. Who was it? She nudged Nicko and Boy 412 awake. Then she crept over to the window and silently drew back one of the shutters.
Nicko and Boy 412 stood by the door, armed with a broom and a heavy lamp.
The Apprentice sat up in his dark corner by the fire and smiled a smug smile. DomDaniel had sent a rescue party for him.
It was no rescue party, but Jenna went pale when she saw who it was.
“It’s the Hunter,” she whispered.
“He’s not coming in,” said Nicko. “No way.”
But the Hunter knocked again, louder.
“Go away!” Jenna yelled at him.
Aunt Zelda came out from tending the Boggart.
“See what he wants,” she said, “and we can send him on his way.”
So, against all her instincts, Jenna opened the door to the Hunter.
She hardly recognized him. Although he still wore the uniform of a Hunter, he no longer looked like one. He had gathered his thick green cloak around him like a beggar with a blanket, and he stood in the doorway apologetically and slightly stooped.
“I am sorry to trouble you gentle folk at this late hour,” he murmured. “But I fear I have lost my way. I wonder if you could direct me to the Port?”
“That way,” said Jenna curtly, pointing out over the marshes.
The Hunter looked confused. “I am not very good at finding my way, miss. Where exactly would that be?”
“Follow the moon,” Aunt Zelda told him. “She will guide you.”
The Hunter bowed humbly.
“Thank you kindly, Madam. I wonder if I could trouble you by asking if there might be a circus due in town? I have hopes of obtaining a position there as a buffoon.”
Jenna smothered a giggle.
“Yes, there is, as it happens,” Aunt Zelda told him. “Er, would you wait a minute?” She disappeared into the kitchen and came back with a small bag containing some bread and cheese.
“Take this,” she said, “and good luck with your new life.”
The Hunter bowed again.
“Why, thank you kindly, Madam,” he said and walked down to the Mott, passing the sleeping Magog and his thin black canoe without a flicker of recognition, and out over the bridge.
Four silent figures stood at the doorway and watched the solitary figure of the Hunter pick his way uncertainly across the Marram Marshes toward his new life in
FISHHEAD AND DURDLE’S
until a cloud covered the moon and the marshes were once again plunged into darkness.
Later that night the Apprentice escaped through the cat tunnel.
Bert, who still had all the instincts of a cat, liked to go wandering at night, and Aunt Zelda would leave the door on a one-way CharmLock. This allowed Bert to go out, but nothing to come in. Not even Bert. Aunt Zelda was very careful about stray Brownies and Marsh Wraiths.
So, when everyone except for the Apprentice had fallen asleep and Bert had decided to go out for the night, the Apprentice thought that he would follow her. It was a tight squeeze, but the Apprentice, who was as thin as a snake and twice as wriggly, wormed his way through the narrow space. As he did so, the Darke Magyk which clung to his robes DisEnchanted the cat tunnel. Soon his flustered face emerged from the tunnel into the chill night air.
Bert met him with a sharp peck on the nose, but the Apprentice was not deterred. He was much more scared of getting stuck in the cat tunnel, with his feet still inside the house and his head on the outside, than he was of Bert. He had a feeling that no one would be in much of a hurry to pull him out if he did get stuck. So he ignored the angry duck and, with a huge effort, wriggled free.
The Apprentice made straight for the landing stage, closely pursued by Bert, who tried to grab his collar again, but this time the Apprentice was ready for her. Angrily, he swatted her away, sending her crashing to the ground and badly bruising a wing.
The Magog was lying full length in the canoe, sleeping while it digested all fifty-six Shield Bugs. The Apprentice warily stepped over it. To his relief the creature did not stir—digestion was something a Magog took very seriously. The smell of Magog slime caught in the back of the Apprentice’s throat, but he picked up the slime-covered paddle and was soon away down the Mott, heading out toward the maze of winding channels that crisscrossed the Marram Marshes and would take him to the Deppen Ditch.
As he left the cottage behind and traveled into the wide moonlit expanse of the marshes, the Apprentice began to feel a little uneasy. With the Magog sleeping, the Apprentice felt horribly unprotected and he remembered all the terrifying stories he had heard about the marshes at night. He paddled the canoe as quietly as he was able to, afraid of disturbing something that may not want to be disturbed. Or, even worse, something that might be waiting to be disturbed. All around him he could hear the nighttime noises of the marsh. He heard the muffled underground shrieking of a pack of Brownies as they pulled an unsuspecting Marsh Cat down into the Quake Ooze. And then there was a nasty scrabbling and squelching noise as two large Water Nixies tried to clamp their sucker pads onto the bottom of the canoe and chew their way into it, but they slipped off soon enough thanks to the remnants of the Magog’s slime.
Sometime after the Water Nixies had dropped off, a Marsh Moaner appeared. Although it was only a small wisp of white mist, it gave off a dank smell that reminded the Apprentice of the burrow in DomDaniel’s hideout. The Marsh Moaner sat itself down behind the Apprentice and started tunelessly singing the most mournful and irritating song the Apprentice had ever heard. The tune whirled around and around inside his head—“Weerrghh-derr-waaaah-dooooooooo…Weerrghh-derrwaaaah-dooooooooo…Weerrghh-derr-waaaah-dooooooooo…”—until the Apprentice felt he might go mad.
He tried to bat the Moaner away with his paddle, but it went straight through the wailing scrap of mist, unbalanced the canoe and nearly sent the Apprentice tumbling out into the dark water. And still the awful tune went on, a little mockingly now that the Moaner knew it had the Apprentice’s attention: “Weerrghh-derr-waaaah-dooooooooo…Weerrghh-derr-waaaah-doooooooo…oooooooooooooooooooooooooooo…”
“Stop it!” yelled the Apprentice, unable to stand the noise a moment longer. He stuffed his fingers into his ears and started singing in a voice loud enough to shut out the ghastly tune.
“I’m not listening, I’m not listening, I’m not listening,” the Apprentice chanted at the top of his lungs while the triumphant Moaner swirled around the canoe, pleased with its night’s work. It usually took the Marsh Moaner much longer to reduce a Young One to a gibbering wreck, but tonight it had struck lucky. Mission completed, the Marsh Moaner flattened out into a thin sheet of mist and wafted off to spend the rest of the night contentedly hanging above its favorite bog.
The Apprentice paddled doggedly on, no longer caring about the succession of Marsh Wraiths, Bogle Bugs and a very tempting array of Marshfire that danced about his canoe for hours. By then the Apprentice did not mind what anything did, as long as it didn’t sing.
As the sun rose over the far reaches of the Marram Marshes, the Apprentice realized he had become hopelessly lost. He was in the middle of a featureless expanse of marshland that all looked the same to him. He paddled wearily onward, not knowing what else to do, and it was midday before he reached a wide, straight stretch of water that looked as though it actually went somewhere, rather than petering out into yet another soggy morass. Exhausted, the Apprentice turned into what was the upper reaches of the Deppen Ditch and slowly headed toward the river. His discovery of the giant Marsh Python, lurking at the bottom of the Ditch and trying to straighten itself out, hardly even bothered the Apprentice. He was far too tired to care. He was also very determined. He had an appointment with DomDaniel, and this time he wasn’t going to mess things up. Very soon the Queenling would be sorry. They would all be sorry. Particularly the duck.