“Apart from the mud,” muttered Aunt Zelda.
“Indeed,” agreed Alther. “But in my experience Darke Magyk always leaves some kind of dirt behind. It could be worse.”
Aunt Zelda did not reply. She was somewhat distracted by the din coming from the cottage. Suddenly there was a loud crash followed by raised voices.
“Alther, what is going on in there?” demanded Aunt Zelda. “I’m only gone for a few hours, then I come back to find some kind of party going on and I’m not even allowed back into my own home. Marcia has gone too far this time if you ask me.”
“It’s an Apprentice Supper,” said Alther. “For the Young Army lad. He’s just become Marcia’s Apprentice.”
“Really? That’s wonderful news,” said Aunt Zelda, brightening. “Perfect news in fact. But you know, I always hoped he would.”
“Did you?” said Alther, beginning to warm to Aunt Zelda. “I always did too.”
“Still,” sighed Aunt Zelda, “I could have done without this supper lark. I had a nice quiet bean and eel stew planned for tonight.”
“Got to have the Apprentice Supper tonight, Zelda,” Alther said. “It must be held on the day the Apprentice accepts a Wizard’s offer. Otherwise the contract between the Wizard and the Apprentice is void. And you can’t make the contract again—you only get one chance. No supper, no contract, no Apprentice.”
“Oh, I know,” said Aunt Zelda airily.
“When Marcia was Apprenticed to me,” said Alther nostalgically, “I remember we had quite a night. We had all the Wizards there, and there were a lot more in those days too. That supper was something we talked about for years afterward. We had it in the Hall of the Wizard Tower—you ever been there, Zelda?”
Aunt Zelda shook her head. The Wizard Tower was somewhere she would have liked to have visited, but when Silas was briefly Alther’s Apprentice she had been too busy taking over as Keeper of the Dragon Boat from the previous White Witch, Betty Crackle, who had let things go somewhat.
“Ah, well, let’s hope you get to see it one day. It is a wonderful place,” he said, remembering the luxury and Magyk that had surrounded them all then. A little different, thought Alther, from a makeshift party beside a fishing boat.
“Well, I have every hope that Marcia will be going back very soon,” said Aunt Zelda. “Now that we seem to have got rid of that awful DomDaniel man.”
“I was Apprenticed to that awful DomDaniel man, you know,” Alther continued, “and all I got for my Apprentice Supper was a cheese sandwich. I can tell you, Zelda, I regretted eating that cheese sandwich more than anything else I had ever done in my life. It bound me to that man for years and years.”
“Until you pushed him off the Wizard Tower.” Aunt Zelda chuckled.
“I didn’t push him. He jumped,” protested Alther. Yet again. And not, he suspected, for the last time.
“Well, good for you, whatever happened,” said Aunt Zelda, distracted by the babble of excited voices coming from the open doors and windows of the cottage. Above the hubbub came Marcia’s unmistakable bossy tones:
“No, let Sarah take that one, Silas. You’ll only drop it.”
“Well, put it down, then, if it’s that hot.”
“Mind my shoes, will you? And get that dog off for goodness’ sake.”
“Wretched duck. Always under my feet. Eurgh, is that duck poo I’ve just trodden on?”
And finally: “And now I’d like my Apprentice to lead the way, please.”
Boy 412 came out the door, holding a lantern. He was followed by Silas and Simon, who were carrying the table and chairs, then Sarah and Jenna with an assortment of plates, glasses, bottles, and Nicko who had a basket piled high with ten cabbages. He had no idea why he had a basket of cabbages, and he was not going to ask either. He had already trodden on Marcia’s brand-new purple python shoes (there was no way she would be wearing galoshes to her Apprentice’s Supper), and was keeping out of her way.
Marcia followed, carefully stepping over the mud, carrying the blue leather Apprentice Diary she had Made for Boy 412.
As the party emerged from the cottage, the last of the clouds cleared away and the moon rode high in the sky, casting a silver light over the procession as it made its way to the landing stage. Silas and Simon set the table down next to Alther’s boat, Molly, and put a large white cloth over it, then Marcia directed how everything should be set out. Nicko had to put the basket of cabbages in the middle of the table just where Marcia told him to.
Marcia clapped her hands for silence.
“This is,” she said, “an important evening for all of us, and I would like to welcome my Apprentice.”
Everyone clapped politely.
“I’m not one for long speeches,” Marcia continued.
“That’s not how I remember it,” Alther whispered to Aunt Zelda, who was sitting next to him in the boat so that he did not feel left out of the party. She nudged him companionably, forgetting for a moment that he was a ghost, and her arm went right through him and her elbow hit Molly’s mast.
“Ouch!” Aunt Zelda yelped. “Oh, sorry, Marcia. Do go on.”
“Thank you, Zelda, I will. I just want to say that I have spent ten years looking for an Apprentice, and although I have met many Hopefuls, I have never found what I was looking for, until now.”
Marcia turned to Boy 412 and smiled. “So, thank you for agreeing to be my Apprentice for the next seven years and a day. Thank you very much. It’s going to be a wonderful time for us both.”
Boy 412, who was sitting next to Marcia, blushed bright red as Marcia handed him his Apprentice Diary. He held the diary tightly with his clammy hands, leaving two slightly grubby handprints on the porous blue leather, which would never come off and would always remind him of the evening that changed his life forever.
“Nicko,” said Marcia, “hand the cabbages out, will you?”
Nicko looked at Marcia with the same expression he used for Maxie when he had done something particularly silly. But he said nothing. He picked up the basket of cabbages and walked around the table and started handing them out.
“Er, thank you, Nicko,” said Silas as he took the proffered cabbage and held it awkwardly in his hands, wondering quite what to do with it.
“No!” snapped Marcia. “Don’t give it to them. Put the cabbages on the plates.”
Nicko gave Marcia another Maxie look (this time it was the I-wish-you-hadn’t-pooed-there look), then quickly dumped a cabbage on each plate.
When everyone, including Maxie, had a cabbage, Marcia raised her hands for silence.
“This is a suit-yourself supper. Each cabbage is Primed to willingly Transform itself into whatever you would most like to eat. Just place your hand on the cabbage and decide what you would like.”
There was an excited buzz as everyone decided what they were going to have and Transformed their cabbages.
“It’s a criminal waste of good cabbages,” Aunt Zelda whispered to Alther. “I shall just have cabbage casserole.”
“Now that you have all decided,” said Marcia loudly over the hubbub, “there is one last thing to be said.”
“Get a move on, Marcia!” Silas called out. “My fish pie’s getting cold.”
Marcia gave Silas a withering look.
“It is traditional,” she continued, “that in return for the seven years and a day of his life that the Apprentice offers the Wizard, the Wizard offers something to the Apprentice.” Marcia turned to Boy 412, who was sitting almost hidden behind a huge plate of eel stew and dumplings just like Aunt Zelda always made.
“What would you like from me?” Marcia asked him. “Ask me anything you like. I will do my best to give it to you.”
Boy 412 gazed at his plate. Then he looked at all the people gathered around him and thought how different his life had become since he had met them. He felt so happy that there was really nothing else he wanted. Except for one thing. One big, impossible thing that he was almost too scared to think about.
“Anything you like,” Marcia said softly. “Anything you want at all.”
Boy 412 gulped.
“I want,” he said quietly, “to know who I am.”