Morwenna stood up. Septimus, Jo-Jo, Marissa and Wolf Boy respectfully leaped to their feet. Nicko still lay on the grass, shoulders shaking.
"Well, boys," Morwenna said, "we will meet again." She reached into her pocket and brought out a small bundle of soft leaves, which she pressed into Septimus's hand. "These will take away your bruise from the fall you had last night," she said to him, "and the swelling from your ankle."
"Thank you, Witch Mother," Septimus said. He hauled Nicko to his feet. Nicko's eyes were streaming, and he was weak with laughter. "I will take my brother away now, Witch Mother. I am sorry for his rudeness. Thank you for your advice."
"Heed it well, Septimus, and you will find what you are looking for." Morwenna smiled. "Farewell, boys. I wish you good speed on your journey." She turned and disappeared into the tepee.
Nicko made a beeline for the edge of the Circle and threw himself to the ground. Then he rolled over and over, hurtling down the grassy slope, still shaking with laughter. A moment later Septimus joined him.
"Nicko," he chided, "you just do not laugh at a Wendron Witch Mother. Ever."
"II'm sorry, Sep," spluttered Nicko. It was just ... it was all so serious ... and witchy ... and we all sat waiting and ... and I thought the third thing would be something ... really important ... and then she said ... she said"
"Don't go to the circus!" Septimus gave in and, yelling with laughter, he rolled down to the bottom of the hill with Nicko.
"You were really disrespectful to the Witch Mother," said Jo-Jo grumpily when he and Wolf Boy joined them at the bottom of the hill. "Marissa is mad. She says I shouldn't have brought you."
"Oh, don'thic!be silly, Jo-Jo," said Nicko, who had stopped laughing but now had the hiccups.
"Are you going now?" Jo-Jo asked in a tone of voice that meant he hoped they were. "I'll take you to the boat."
Nicko and Septimus nodded. They both wanted to be out of the Forest and on their way to find Jenna before the day drew on.
Jo-Jo glanced in Wolf Boy's direction. "You still taking him with youor is he staying here?"
Septimus looked at Wolf Boy only to meet his deep brown eyes staring at him again. He wished he would stop staring like that. Surely even Wolf Boy should have got used to the Apprentice robes by now. They weren't that weird, were they?
"He's staying here," said Septimus.
"But, Sep, we need him. He's the reason we came here," said Nicko. "We'll never find Jenna without him now. The trail is over a day old. Only Wolf Boy can pick up a trail that cold."
"But we know where Jenna is now," said Septimus. "She's in the Port."
Nicko was silent for a moment.
"You didn't believe that crazy witch, did you?" he asked, amazed.
"Nicko! She's not crazy."
"She's a witch though. And worse than that, she's a Wendron Witch. They used to kidnap babies. And if the baby was a boy they'd leave him out for the wolverines. And if you got lost in the Forest and asked them the way, you'd end up in a Witch Pit. Bo Tenderfoot's aunt spent two weeks in a Witch Pit and she"
"Jenna's best friend. You remember. Nice kid with carroty hair."
"Look, Nik, concentrate. We want to find Jenna. Remember? That's why we're here. And I believe Morwenna. Even Marcia says Morwenna has second sight, and Marcia thinks witches are a waste of space. I think Jenna is in the Port."
"Don't know why she'd go there," grumbled Nicko. "It's a dump."
"Simon must have taken her thereto hand her over to that stranger you said was asking about her and that Morwenna said was looking for her. We've got to get there as soon as we can."
"Okay." Nicko sighed. "We'll go to the Port."
Jo-Jo led the way down the beach where the boat was moored, and,despite what Septimus had said, Wolf Boy still followed them. Then, when Nicko had untied the boat and Jo-Jo was pushing them off the shingle into the deeper water, Wolf Boy suddenly took a flying leap and landed in the boat, just as the current was taking it out into the middle of the river.
"Hey!" yelled Nicko as the boat rocked precariously. "What d'you think you're doing?" Wolf Boy crouched on the deck like a wild animal and stared at Septimus until Septimus could stand it no longer.
"Stop staring at me!" he yelled.
Wolf Boy's brown eyes did not flicker. They looked at Septimus closely until Septimus felt a strange shiver of recognition pass through him. He had been here before. On a boat. On the river. By the Forest. With Wolf Boy.
Suddenly he felt cold. He squatted down in the boat next to Wolf Boy, staring at him in return. "Four-oh-nine?" Septimus whispered.
Wolf Boy nodded and spoke for the first time in four years.
"You." He grinned. "Four-one-two."
They sailed down the river on the outgoing tide. Wolf Boy and Septimus sat on the deck of the boat with their arms around each other's shoulders smiling broadly.
"He reminds me of you when we found you," mused Nicko. "I remember you never said a word. Just stared at us as if we were all mad. It gave me the creeps."
"Oh," said Septimus. "Sorry."
"We didn't mind. Not really. We liked you. Just couldn't understand why you didn't speak. But it must be something to do with the Army. Must have been horrible."
"It was," said Wolf Boy very slowly, getting used to the sound of his own voice. "You couldn't trust anyone. But I trusted 412."
A silence fell in the boat. Nicko busied himself adjusting the sails and Septimus stared at the river. After a while Septimus said to Wolf Boy, "I tried to get them to go back for you. I really did. But they wouldn't. They wouldn't. The Leader Cadet laughed and saidwhat did we expect? It was a Do-or-Die. And you were the first Die. He was really excited about that. I tried to jump in after you but the Leader Cadet knocked me out. I came to when the boat landed and they threw me in the water. I'm sorry. I should have saved you."
Wolf Boy said nothing for a while. And then he said, "No, I should have saved you. I escaped the Army and you didn't. I swam ashore and hid. The next morning I saw you in the Forest. But I was afraid of being seen, so I stayed hidden. I should have saved you and we could have both been free. Not just me."
"It doesn't matter," said Septimus. "I would never have found out who I was if you had. And we're both free now."
"Free..." murmured Wolf Boy, gazing dreamily over the side of the boat as it cut through the calm green water, heading for the Port.
Chapter 22 The Port
It had been a long, hot day. Jenna, Stanley and Thunder were making their way along the beach. The sea was calm and sparkled a brilliant blue in the sunlight, and the sand dunes stretched for mile after mile. Jenna had just given Thunder the last of the water from the bottles she had filled from the spring that morning. She tipped the bottle to give herself and Stanley a drink and discovered that there was nothing left but a hot trickle of rusty water that tasted of metal. Irritably she shoved the bottle back into the saddlebag and wondered, not for the first time, if Stanley's idea of reaching the Port by riding along the beach had been such a good one.
Jenna had soon discovered that it was very tiring for the horse to walk along soft sand. She had taken Thunder down to the tide line where he could walk on the firm sand left by the receding tide, but as the afternoon wore on the tide came in. Now the sea was high on the beach and Thunder was plowing laboriously through the soft dry sand that spilled from the sand dunes.
The sun was low on the horizon when at last Thunder wearily plodded around the foot of the final sand dune, and to her delight, Jenna could see the Port in the distance, silhouetted against the reddening sky. Jenna felt tired and sunburned, but she kept up a stream of encouraging words to Thunder, urging the heavy-footed horse on to their destination.
Stanley, however, was wide awake. "I always get excited when I first see the Port," he declared, sitting up in the saddle behind Jenna and looking around brightly. "So many things to do, so many rats to see. Not this time, of course. Got a job to do this time. Who'd have thought it, eh? Secret Rat on a Find :nd Return mission for royalty. What a start to my new career. That'll show Dawnie. And her stupid sister. Huh!"
"Dawnie?" asked Jenna, leaning forward and patting Thunder's neck.