The young witches on cooking duty had served an extremely tasty wolverine stew, and even the witches’ brew had tasted good. All was going well, until Ephaniah had once more made his request to Morwenna. In an instant—as though someone had thrown a switch—a frosty silence fell. Suddenly Septimus felt as though he was surrounded by a circle of wolverines rather than witches.
Recklessly, Ephaniah had repeated his question. “But, Morwenna, I beg you to show us the Forest Way. Surely, for me, you will do it?”
Septimus had not understood the squeaks, but the replies were clear enough.
“Have I not done enough for you already?” Morwenna snapped.
Ephaniah looked shocked and hurt. “Yes,” he squeaked. “You have done so much for me. I can never repay you.
Morwenna’s witchy blue eyes pierced the dark. “I never asked for payment, Ephaniah,” she told him. “I freely gave what was mine to give. But the knowledge you ask is not mine to give. I am but the Guardian of the Forest Way.
Therefore, I must exact a price.”
“I shall pay whatever you ask,” he recklessly replied.
Morwenna looked surprised. “Very well. I shall give you my price in the morning. And when I ask it, you must pay it.”
Ephaniah nodded somberly. “I understand,” he squeaked.
With that the Witch Mother got to her feet and the whole circle of witches had silently followed suit. And that was the end of the evening.
Septimus sat up and threw off the disgusting goatskin. He was, he decided, allergic to goats—especially rancid ones. He wondered if he could swap his goatskin for Beetle’s blanket without Beetle waking up.
“You awake, Sep?” Beetle’s whisper came from the other side of the tepee.
“No. I always sleep sitting up.”
“Of course I’m awake, Beetle. You awake too?”
“Nah. Fast asleep.”
“Ha ha. Hey…what’s that?” Tall, distorted shadows had suddenly appeared in sharp focus on the side of the tepee. A bout of hastily smothered giggling gave the game away—a group of young witches were on the other side of the tepee.
“No…is that really what she’s going to ask the rat-man for?” an incredulous voice was asking.
“That’s what she said. She always tells me stuff when I help her get ready for bed. She likes to unwind and talk about things.”
“You’ll be Witch Mother-in-Waiting if you don’t watch out, Marissa.”
“Oh, ha ha. I don’t think so.”
An earnest voice chimed in. “But the rat-man doesn’t have to give what she asks for, does he?”
“He does. He agreed, didn’t he?”
A new voice said, “He squeaked. Could mean anything. Could mean get off my foot you great fat—”
“Shhh. You’re crazy
calling the Witch Mother fat. You know how touchy she is about her weight. You’ll end up a frog for a day—or worse.”
The earnest voice chimed in again. “But why would she want the Princess anyway?”
Septimus’s and Beetle’s eyes widened in shock. They both strained to hear what was coming next.
“She wants the panther.” This was Marissa. “Morwenna’s always wanted a Day to Night Transformer.”
“So why doesn’t she just ask for the panther?”
“Two for the price of one,” Marissa said, giggling. “If she asks for the panther that’s all she gets. But if she asks for the Princess the panther comes too. Clever, huh?”
“And having the Princess would make her really
powerful, wouldn’t it? Morwenna says that the Palace is full of tons of old Magyk stuff that the Queens pinched from us in the first place. She just wants back what’s rightfully ours.”
“So she really is going to ask for the Princess?”
“Yep. She is. First thing tomorrow. So we’ll have little Miss Royal Fusspot and her scrappy cat living here. She’ll soon learn. Ho-ho.”
There was another flurry of giggling—a little nastier this time—and to his dismay, Septimus felt another sneeze coming on. He grabbed hold of his nose and held his breath. He must not sneeze. He must not, not, not, ah…ah…ah…Beetle saw what was coming. He leaped up and shoved his hand over Septimus’s nose and suddenly Septimus most definitely did not want to sneeze anymore. He just wanted to breathe.
The young witches’ conversation continued, unaware of the listeners right next to them, divided only by a thick sheet of canvas. Marissa was speaking now. She sounded impatient. “Sam will be here soon. I can see his torch coming along the track. We can’t wait for Bryony much longer.”
“Give her a couple of minutes more, Marissa. She had to clean the cooking pot. Which is more than you did this morning. It’s disgusting.”
“Well, I hate
cleaning the pot. No one notices a bit of breakfast in their wolverine stew. Oh, I’m tired of waiting. I’m going to go get her. She can come now or forget it.”
“Okay. We’ll come with you.” The tallest shadow left the group and the three other shadows quickly followed.
Beetle and Septimus stared at each other, goggle-eyed. “Did you hear that?” mouthed Beetle.
Septimus nodded. “We’ve got to get Jen out of here,” he whispered.
T hirty seconds later
a very drowsy Jenna was outside the tepee with Septimus and Beetle standing on either side of her like sentries. She blinked into the bright moonlight and looked around, puzzled. Ullr yawned and stretched, digging his claws into the damp grass.
Far on the other side of the Summer Circle an argument about a cooking pot was developing. Under the cover of the raised voices Septimus whispered, “Jen—we’ve got to get out of here. Right now. Come on.”
“But why? I’m so tired, Sep.”
“Too bad, Jen. You can’t stay here. Come on.”
“But where to? I’m not going into the Forest at night. No way.”
“Come on, Jen.” Septimus gave Beetle a look—then they both grabbed an arm and lifted her off her feet.
“Hey!” Jenna protested.
“Shhh…” Septimus and Beetle hissed.
“Put…me…down,” Jenna whispered, and then, veering into Princess voice, “Right now.” Beetle and Septimus put Jenna down.
“Come on, Jen,” Septimus pleaded. “You have to trust us. Please.”
Jenna trusted Septimus completely, but what she did not trust was the Forest at night. Reluctantly, she walked down the hill with Septimus and Beetle, leaving behind the warmth of the campfire and the circle of illuminated tepees like upturned yellow cones on the hilltop, and headed to the dark uncertainty of the Forest. Even with the NightUllr by her side, Jenna felt fearful—and then she saw something that made her feel very afraid. Far below, half hidden in the trees, was a flickering flame coming toward just the point they were heading for. Jenna stopped and glared at Septimus and Beetle, daring them to even think
about picking her up again. “There’s a Forest Wraith,” she whispered. “It’s heading straight for us.”
“It’s not a Forest Wraith, Jen.” The moonlight caught Septimus’s grin and Jenna saw his green eyes shine. “It’s Sam.”
“Jo-Jo will kill me,” said Sam, sounding remarkably cheerful about the prospect.
“I’m really sorry,” said Septimus as they followed him along the track between the tall Forest trees.
not,” Sam replied. “I’ve had enough of those giggling witches keeping me awake at night. They’re a pain. I don’t know what Jo-Jo, Edd and Erik see in them.”
Beetle thought he did know, but he didn’t say anything. He was too busy trying to keep up. Sam set a fast pace. He was carrying a long branch of oak that had been dipped in tar and burned with a strong flame, and Beetle wanted to keep as close to it as he possibly could. The track narrowed and plunged into a particularly dark patch, and the group was forced to travel single file, with Beetle the last in line. Stories about wolverines picking off the weakest stragglers kept going through his head, and he was determined not to give the slightest impression of straggling.