“No,” said Sarah, who could but didn’t want to even think about it.
“Oh.” Jannit looked down at her boater and then, very purposefully, put it on top of a pile of something behind her.
Sarah’s heart sank. She knew what was coming.
Jannit cleared her throat and began. “As you know, Nicko has been gone for six months now and as far as I understand, no one knows where he is or when—indeed, if—he is ever coming back. In fact—and I am very sorry to say this—I have heard that he will never return.”
Sarah caught her breath. No one had dared to say this to her face before.
“I am very sorry to have to come here like this, Madam Heap, but—”
“Oh, it’s Sarah. Please, just call me Sarah.”
“Sarah. Sarah, I am sorry, but we cannot struggle on without Nicko any longer. The summer season is looming, when even more foolhardy idiots will be putting to sea to try and catch a few herring. They’ll all be wanting their boats ready, plus the fact that the Port barge is in for repair again after this month’s storms—well, we are facing our busiest time. I’m so sorry, but while Nicko is still apprenticed to me, according to the Boatbuilders Association training regulations—which are an absolute minefield, but I do have to abide by them—I cannot engage anyone else. I urgently need a new apprentice, especially as Rupert Gringe is nearing the end of his Articles soon.”
Sarah Heap clasped her hands together tightly, and Jannit noticed that her fingernails were bitten down to the quick.
Sarah was trembling and did not speak for some seconds. Then, just as Jannit thought she would have to break the silence, Sarah said, “He will come back. I don’t believe they went back in Time—no one can do that. Jenna and Septimus just thought they did. It was some wicked, wicked spell. I keep asking Marcia to figure it out. She could Find Nicko, I know she could, but she’s done nothing. Nothing. It’s all a complete nightmare!” Sarah’s voice rose in despair.
“I’m so sorry,” Jannit murmured. “I really am.”
Sarah took a deep breath and tried to calm down. “It’s not your fault, Jannit. You were very good to Nicko. He loved working for you. But of course you must find another apprentice, although I would ask you one thing.”
“Of course,” replied Jannit.
“When Nicko returns, will you renew his apprenticeship?”
“I would be delighted to.” Jannit smiled, pleased that Sarah had asked for something she could readily agree to. “Even if I have a new apprentice, Nicko would step straight into Rupert’s shoes and become my senior apprentice—or journeyman as we call it down at the yard.”
Sarah smiled wistfully. “That would be wonderful,” she said.
“And now”—this was the part Jannit had been dreading—“I am afraid I must trouble you to sign the Release.” Jannit stood up to pull a roll of parchment from her coat pocket, and the pile of towels, suddenly losing their support, fell down and took her place.
Jannit cleared a space on the table and unrolled the long piece of parchment that formed Nicko’s apprentice Indentures.
She secured it top and bottom with whatever came to hand—a well-thumbed novel called Love on the High Seas and a large bag of biscuits.
“Oh.” Sarah caught her breath at the sight of Nicko’s spidery signature—along with her own and Jannit’s—at the foot of the parchment.
Hastily, Jannit placed the Release—a small slip of parchment—over the signatures and said, “Sarah, as one of the parties who signed the Indentures, I have to ask you to sign the Release. I have a pen if you…if you can’t find one.”
Sarah couldn’t find one. She took the pen and ink bottle that Jannit had taken from her other coat pocket, dipped the pen in the ink and—feeling as though she was signing Nicko’s life away—she signed the parchment. A tear dripped onto the ink and smudged it; both Jannit and Sarah pretended not to notice.
Jannit signed her own signature next to Sarah’s; then she took a needle threaded with thick sail cotton from her bottomless coat pocket and sewed the Release over the original signatures.
Nicko Heap was no longer apprenticed to Jannit Maarten.
Jannit snatched up the hat balanced behind her and fled. It was only when she reached her boat that she realized she had taken Sarah’s gardening hat, but she stuffed it on her head regardless and rowed slowly back to her boatyard.
Silas Heap and Maxie the wolfhound found Sarah in her herb garden. Sarah was, for some reason Silas did not understand, wearing a sailor’s boater. She also had Jenna’s duck with her. Silas was not keen on the duck—the stubble gave him goose bumps when he looked at it and he thought the crocheted waistcoat was a sign that Sarah was going a little crazy.
“Oh, there you are,” he said, heading along the neatly tended grass path toward the bed of mint that Sarah was absentmindedly poking at. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you.”
Sarah gave Silas a wan half smile in reply, and as Silas and Maxie plowed through the defenseless patch of mint, she did not venture even a small protest. Silas, like Sarah, looked careworn. His straw-colored Heap curls had recently acquired a gray dusting of salt and pepper, his blue Ordinary Wizard robes hung loosely from him, and his silver Ordinary Wizard belt was pulled in a notch or two more than usual. Accompanied by the heady smell of crushed mint, Silas reached Sarah and launched straight into his prepared speech.
“You’re not going to like this,” he said, “but my mind is made up. Maxie and I are going into the Forest and we’re not coming out until we’ve found him.”
Sarah picked up the duck and hugged it tightly to her. It let out a strangled quack. “You are a pig-headed fool,” she said.
“How many times have I told you that if you would only get Marcia to do something about this horrible Darke Magyk that has trapped Nicko somewhere, then he’d be back in a moment. But you won’t. You go on and on about the stupid Forest—”
Silas sighed. “I told you, Marcia says it’s not Darke Magyk. There’s no point asking her over and over again.” Sarah glowered so Silas tried another tack. “Look, Sarah, I can’t just do nothing, it’s driving me crazy. It’s been six months now since Jenna and Septimus came back without Nicko and I’m not waiting any longer. You had the same dream as I did. You know it means something.”
Sarah remembered the dream she had had a few months after Nicko disappeared. He was walking through a forest deep in snow; it was twilight and in front of him a yellow light shone through the trees. There was a girl beside him, a little taller and older than he was, Sarah thought. The girl had long, white-blond hair and was wrapped in a wolfskin pelt. She pointed to the light ahead. Nicko took the girl’s hand and together they hurried toward the light. At that moment Silas had started snoring and Sarah had woken up with a jolt. The next morning Silas had excitedly described a dream he had had about Nicko. To Sarah’s amazement it was identical to hers.
Since that moment Silas had become convinced that Nicko was in the Forest and he wanted to go search for him. But Sarah had disagreed. The forest in the dream was not, she had told Silas, the Castle Forest. It was different, she was sure of that. Silas, in turn, had also disagreed. He knew the Forest, he said—and he was sure it was the Castle Forest.
In their time together Sarah and Silas did not always agree, but they would quickly resolve their differences, often when Silas brought home a few wildflowers or herbs for Sarah as a peace offering. But this time there was no peace offering.
Silas and Sarah’s arguments about forests became increasingly bitter and they soon lost sight of the real reason for their unhappiness: Nicko’s disappearance.
But now Silas had just bumped into the departing Jannit Maarten, who was carrying Nicko’s ex-Apprentice Indentures.
He had made his mind up. He was going into the Forest to find Nicko and no one was going to stop him—particularly Sarah.
Feed the Magogs, do not touch Sleuth, and don’t go nosing around my room. Got that?” Simon Heap told his scowling assistant, Merrin Meredith.
“Yeah, yeah,” sulked Merrin, who was sitting listlessly on the one comfortable chair in the Observatory. His dark, straggly hair hung limply over his face, masking a large pimple in the middle of his forehead that had sprung up overnight.