Only Septimus could see the dull, Magykal
haze of purple that surrounded the boat, but as a sudden eddy pulled Ephaniah’s oar from his grasp and sent the rowboat spinning toward the peeling blue hull, everyone could see the faded name in gold letters painted along the prow: QUESTE.
Beetle grabbed Ephaniah’s lost oar just before it disappeared into the water. Ephaniah squeaked his thanks. He moved across to give Beetle space and together he and Beetle managed to get the rowboat back under control—but not before it had bumped into the hull of Queste with a loud, hollow thud.
As Beetle and Ephaniah frantically pulled away from the Questing Boat, there came the sound of running footsteps on the deck of Queste. Quickly, Jenna undid her red cloak and threw it over Septimus, hiding his distinctive fair hair and green tunic, so that when three Questing Guards
peered over the side they saw a shivering Princess, with her arm protectively around a hunched little old lady, being ferried across the Moat. Where the Princess might be going with the little old lady was of no concern to the guards; they were more concerned about what had happened to the final Questor.
The final Questor stepped out of the rowboat and risked a quick glance back at Queste. She was not a bad boat, he thought. She looked fast and very maneuverable—the kind of boat that Nicko would like. The thought of Nicko made Septimus forget his own troubles.
Ephaniah led the way along the bank past the Infirmary with its early morning candles lighting up the small windows—it still had a few elderly victims of the Sickenesse regaining their strength. They took the footpath around the back of the Infirmary and were at last out of sight of the Questing Boat. Relieved, Septimus shrugged off his little-old-lady mode and handed Jenna back her cloak, which she carefully fastened with Nicko’s precious gold pin.
Behind the Infirmary was an overgrown path, sunk between two deep banks, well-trodden long ago by generations of charcoal burners. They followed Ephaniah as he limped through the ferns and drifts of leaves that covered the old path, and soon they came to a low escarpment of rock, which seemed to block their way. Ephaniah turned and pointed to a narrow gap in the rock. With some difficulty, the rat-man squeezed through (he had been a little thinner when he had last made the journey as a fourteen-year-old) and Septimus, Beetle, Jenna and Ullr easily followed him.
In front of them stretched a deep and narrow cutting through the rocks, shaded by overhanging trees high above.
“The charcoal burners’ gulley,” squeaked Ephaniah proudly, pleased to have found the way after all the years. “The best way into the Forest.”
“I wish Stanley were here,” said Jenna. “He’d tell us what Ephaniah was saying.”
“Eventually, he might.” Septimus grinned. “But first he’d tell us all about his third cousin twice removed who followed a giant rat into the Forest and was never seen again and then he’d tell us all about the time that he and Dawnie had—”
“All right, all right,” laughed Jenna. “Maybe I’m glad Stanley isn’t here.”
W hile Jenna, Ullr, Septimus and
Beetle were setting off along the charcoal burners’ gulley, Silas and Maxie were waking up in a cold, damp tepee in the Wendron Witches’ Summer Circle.
Maxie had enjoyed his night in the Witches’ Circle—Silas had not. The tepee had leaked and the bedding had gotten wet and begun to smell of rancid goat. To make matters worse, Silas had been kept awake by the giggling of a gang of teenage witches planning a raid on what they called Camp Heap, which was where Sam, Edd, Erik and Jo-Jo Heap lived.
Silas, who had no wish to know what his four sons were up to when it came to the Wendron Witches, had stuffed his ears full of rancid goat wool—big mistake—and tried to get to sleep by counting sheep—even bigger mistake, as the sheep had turned into rancid goats and started chanting. After a while Silas had realized that the chanting was in fact the witches chanting around the campfire. Exasperated, he had thrown a pile of stinking goat fur over his head to drown out the noise and had finally fallen asleep.
As Silas lay staring blearily at the top of the tepee, a young witch put her head around the door flap and said, “The Witch Mother requests that you join her for breakfast.”
Silas struggled to sit up, and the young witch suppressed a giggle. Silas’s straw-colored curly hair looked like a bird’s nest—the kind of nest that would belong to a large untidy bird with a hygiene problem. From the middle of the nest, Silas’s green eyes peered out, trying to focus on the young witch. “Um, thank you. Please tell her that I would be delighted.” Even though Silas felt as if he had spent the night with a wet goat sitting on his head, he knew that any invitation from the Witch Mother must always be treated with reverence and respect.
A few minutes later, Silas and Maxie were sitting beside a blazing campfire. A strong smell of damp dog with subtle notes of none-too-clean wool filled the air as Silas’s Ordinary Wizard robes steamed in the heat. Behind him the young witch who had woken him poured out a cup of hot witches’ brew and avoided breathing in too deeply.
Sitting opposite Silas was Morwenna, the Witch Mother—a large woman with piercingly blue witches’ eyes and long graying hair held back with a green leather headband. Morwenna wore the Wendron Witches’ summer tunic of green and, as Witch Mother, she had a broad white sash around her more than ample waist.
The young witch passed Silas a steaming cup of witches’ brew and he warily took a sip. It was, as he feared, disgusting—but it was also strangely warming. Morwenna was watching him with a fond smile, so Silas slowly drank a few more mouthfuls. As he did so he felt the ache in his bones fade and his spirits begin to drag themselves up from the deep pit where they had spent the night.
The young witch passed Silas a wooden bowl containing what looked, at first impression, like cereal with caterpillars.
Silas inspected it dubiously but, telling himself that that flecks of green were most likely some kind of fleshy herb, he took a spoonful. His first impression had been right. They were caterpillars. Silas swallowed with some difficulty—because you never, ever
spat out food given to you by a witch. Gloomily he surveyed the enormous amount of caterpillar cereal that he still had left to eat and wondered if he could sneak any to Maxie. He decided not to risk it.
“I trust it is to your liking?” asked Morwenna, noticing Silas’s expression.
“Oh. Yes. It’s very, um…”—Silas bit through a particularly large caterpillar with legs—“crunchy.”
“I am so pleased. They are a late spring delicacy and give great strength and will clear your head. I thought you looked in need of them.”
Silas nodded, unable to speak right then due to a mouth full of caterpillars and a sudden inability to swallow. One ghastly gulp later Silas decided he had to be tough—he would herd all the caterpillars together and get it over with.
Gathering his courage, he scooped up and quickly swallowed two large spoonfuls of caterpillars. With great relief he looked at the remains of his cereal, which was now caterpillar-free. But, as Silas was taking a great gulp of the witches’
brew to wash down the last resistant caterpillar that had got stuck between a gap in his teeth, the young serving-witch stepped forward with a small bowl full of writhing green tubes and dutifully added three more spoonfuls to his porridge.
“You seem preoccupied, Silas Heap,” said Morwenna.
“Ahem,” said Silas, overwhelmed by the latest caterpillar incursion.
“Thank you, Marissa, you may leave us now,” said Morwenna, waving the young witch away. She took Silas’s bowl from him with a smile and gave it to a deeply grateful Maxie. “Too many caterpillars this morning, perhaps?” she said.
“But, um, very…remarkable caterpillars. I feel much better, thank you.” And it was true, Silas did suddenly feel better.
In fact he felt very good indeed. Clear-headed, strong and ready for the day.
“Ever since I heard about Nicko’s disappearance I have been expecting you,” Morwenna said.
Silas looked amazed. “Oh. Oh, Morwenna, I Know Nicko is in the Forest. But I do not Know where.”
“And I Know that he is not,” said Morwenna.
“Are you sure?” asked Silas, who had great respect for Morwenna’s knowledge.