Morwenna leaned forward and placed her surprisingly dainty hand on Silas’s arm. Very gently she said, “Silas, I must tell you that Nicko is not in this world.”
Silas went pale, the tepees surrounding him began to sway and he wanted to be sick. “You mean he’s dead,” he said.
Hastily Morwenna said, “No. He is no more dead than those who are not yet born are dead.”
Silas put his head in his hands. He found what Sarah Heap scathingly called witchy-talk difficult at the best of times, and now was most definitely not
the best of times. He needed to talk to his father. Silas’s father had been a practical man—a good, honest Shape-Shifter Wizard who was now living as a tree somewhere in the Forest. He would know what to do.
“Morwenna,” said Silas, “there’s a tree I need to find.”
“There are many trees in the Forest,” Morwenna observed. Silas wondered if she was making fun of him but then she said, “And some are more tree than others. Some were born trees and some became trees. I believe the tree you seek was not a born tree, I am right, Silas Heap?”
“Yes,” said Silas.
“To seek a tree not born of tree is no easy task. They grow in the Ancient Groves, which are dangerous places. Some are pleased with their choice to be tree and others weep and wail and wish to be as they once were. These are the ones that prey upon the traveler and lure her to her doom. Who is it you wish to find, Silas Heap?”
“Benjamin Heap. My father.”
“Ah, your shape-shifter father. It is true what they say—your family runs deep and dark, Silas Heap.”
“Do they? I don’t know why. Dad just liked trees, that’s all. He was a quiet man, very slow in his ways. I think it probably suits him. But…well, last year the boys—Septimus and Nicko—they found him. And I need to see him, Morwenna. He’ll know how to find Nicko. He must. He must.”
Morwenna had never seen Silas Heap so desperate. Remembering the time many years ago when Silas had saved her from certain death by the Forest wolverines, she made him a generous offer. “I will take you to your father,” she said.
Silas gasped. “You know where he is?”
“Of course. I know each tree in the Forest. How could I be Witch Mother and not know this?”
Silas was speechless. He had spent the last twenty-five years searching for his father and Morwenna had known all the time.
“You are strangely silent, Silas. Perhaps you do not wish to see your father after all?”
“Oh…no, I do. I really do.”
Five minutes later Silas and Maxie were following the Witch Mother down the spiral path to the Forest floor. They took a narrow track that Silas knew would lead them past Camp Heap, where Silas had spent the last few days—until both he and the occupants of the camp had become totally exasperated with one another. Quietly, they skirted Camp Heap which, at that time of the morning, was still a slumbering circle of what looked like great piles of leaves. These were in fact what the Heap boys called benders—simple shelters made from bent willow branches and leaves. The only sign of occupation was the smoldering of the campfire, which the boys always kept burning, and the sound of snoring drifting out of Sam Heap’s bender. Silas felt the urge to go wake them all up and tell them to get up and do something—which was what had led to much of the trouble during his stay—but he resisted.
Silas, Maxie and Morwenna walked deeper into the Forest, through dark glades and gulleys and into hidden places where Silas had never been before. They traveled fast, with Morwenna moving swift and agile through the trees. Silas concentrated hard on following the witch’s Forest green robes, which took on the shadows and shapes of their surroundings and he knew would quickly disappear if he looked away for one moment. Maxie loped behind, his stiff old joints complaining at the long trek, but not letting Silas out of his sight for one second.
Suddenly, Morwenna dived into a thicket of giant ferns. Silas followed her but the thick stems would not let him pass.
He pushed and shoved, he even insulted them under his breath, but they would not move. He succeeded in nothing more than getting an impressive collection of giant burrs and two sticky toads stuck to his cloak. Silas fought the temptation to call out Morwenna’s name, for he knew that the sound of a human voice in the Forest, even in daytime, can draw the kind of attention a human does not necessarily want. So he waited, hoping that Morwenna would soon notice he was no longer following her. Maxie gratefully lay down and licked his weary paws, but Silas was not so patient. He kicked his heels, he scratched his itchy head and dislodged three tree beetles, he prized the sticky toads from his cloak and stuck them onto a nearby sapling, and then one by one he picked off twenty-five giant burrs that had stuck onto his cloak and threw them into the ferns. But still there was no sign of the Witch Mother.
Silas decided to risk a whisper. “Morwenna…Morwenna…”
A few moments later Morwenna emerged from the ferns. “There you are,” she said. “Come on. Keep up.” She plunged into the ferns once again but this time Silas followed her so closely that he was very nearly treading upon her heels. The thick stems made way for the witch—but not for Silas. As soon as Morwenna had passed through, the giant ferns began to close ranks again, forcing Silas and Maxie to be quick and slip through the narrowing gap. It was lucky, thought Silas, that Morwenna was so much wider than him.
As they moved through the ferns, the light faded to a green dimness. At last they stepped out into a great green cathedral of trees—the tallest trees Silas had ever seen in his life, their branches arching gracefully up into the canopy of the Forest hundreds of feet above him. An unexpected feeling of awe came over him. Maxie whimpered.
“Your father is here,” Morwenna said quietly.
“I shall leave you now, Silas Heap,” Morwenna half-whispered. “I have business at our Winter Quarters. I will return for you on my way back.”
Silas did not answer. He could not imagine ever leaving such a peaceful place.
“Silas?” Morwenna prompted.
Silas shook himself out of his trance and answered, “Thank you, Morwenna. But…I think I want to stay here for a while.”
Morwenna saw the faraway look in Silas’s eyes and she knew she would get no more sense out of him. “Well, take care,” she told him. “Be sure to spend the hours of darkness off the Forest floor. The Ancient Groves are dangerous places at night.”
“May the Goddess go with you.”
“Yes, Silas Heap?”
“Where exactly is my father?”
Morwenna pointed to the tangle of gnarled mossy roots below Silas’s boots.
“You’re standing on his toes,” she said with a smile. With that she was gone.
A fter watching Silas—and a
very bemused wolfhound—being slowly lifted up into the branches of Benjamin Heap, Morwenna headed straight for the Old Quarry. Morwenna’s predecessor, Madam Agaric, had run the Wendron Witch Coven from the vastness of a large cave set high up in the walls of the Old Quarry deep in the Forest. Madam Agaric’s reign had come to an unexpected—and generally unlamented—end one cold winter’s night at a full moon when the old witch had taken a fraction of a second too long to Freeze
a werewolf that she had found lurking in the heaps of mouldy clutter at the back of her cave.
One of the first things Morwenna had done when she became Witch Mother was to start the Witches’ Summer Circle on the hill. It put an end to all the petty feuds and personal hexes that had been rife among the witches, which life in the oppressive Quarry had encouraged. Morwenna liked to oversee all the details of the move—and one of these details was making the Old Quarry safe and welcoming for their eventual return on the day of the Autumn Equinox.
Morwenna took the shortcut to the Old Quarry—a hidden path that descended into the secret valley of the Blue Star Firs, trees that grew nowhere but there. As she entered the valley a heady scent of Blue Fir resin filled the air, a scent that made unprepared travelers sleepy and easy prey for the blue snakes that infested the high branches of the firs. But Morwenna was well prepared. She took out her green-spotted handkerchief, shook a few drops of peppermint oil onto it and pressed it against her nose. Morwenna emerged from the valley and stopped for a moment by the Green Pool—an ancient pond cut deep into the stone floor of the Forest. She kneeled down, dipped her hands into the cold water and drank. Then she filled a small water bottle and continued on her way.