Sam was a confident leader. He strode on steadily and slowed only once when a long, rolling growl rumbled out of the darkness in front of them. Despite an answering snarl from Ullr, the growl continued and on the path ahead Beetle saw the yellow glint of two pairs of eyes. Suddenly Sam jabbed his torch into the dark—there was a sharp yelp and a smell of singed fur. Quickly, they hurried on, with Beetle almost treading on Septimus’s heels in an effort to keep up. But he kept glancing behind just in case the yellow eyes had decided to try their luck.
A few minutes later the track broadened and Beetle began to feel much better—he could see the dancing flames of a campfire flickering through the trees and he knew they must be approaching Camp Heap. As they followed Sam into the wide clearing, three gangly figures jumped up from where they had been lolling around the fire and ran to greet them.
Beetle had never met Septimus’s Forest brothers before, although Septimus had told him all about them. Beetle was surprised; he realized he had been expecting larger versions of Septimus but they were all young men—tall, thin and gangly with a wild look to them. They wore an assortment of furs and colorful tunics, woven by various admiring young witches, and they looked, thought Beetle, as though they belonged in the Forest even more than the witches did. The only similarity between Septimus and his brothers was the Magykal green eyes and the Heap hair—straw-colored curls that the Forest Heaps had turned into long, matted rat tails.
“That was quick,” said one with feathers woven into his rat tails.
“Yeah,” replied Sam, “and a lot quieter than usual.”
“Marissa…Marissa?” Another Heap with a collection of plaited leather headbands around his rat tails peered at the group behind Sam. “Hey, he’s brought a load of kids. Where’s Marissa?”
“For your information, Jo,” said Sam, “this load of kids
is your brother and sister, not to mention your sister’s panther.” Sam waved his hand at Ullr, who was almost invisible in the shadows. The boys whistled, impressed. “Oh…” Sam tried to remember what Septimus had called the older boy with the black hair. “Oh yeah, and there’s Cockroach.”
“No, actually it’s Bee—” But Beetle’s protests were lost in the argument that was rapidly developing between Jo-Jo and Sam.
Jo-Jo Heap looked angry. “So you haven’t brought Marissa?”
“Pigs, Sam. It’s been ages. All that time Dad was hanging around here I couldn’t see her and then when he was up at the Circle I couldn’t, and now he’s gone and I can and you haven’t brought Marissa.”
go get her, then,” said Sam, thrusting the burning torch into Jo-Jo’s hands. “I’m tired of doing all the night stuff anyway.
You can do it.”
“All right, then, I will.” Jo-Jo strode off with the branch and Sam watched him go with a surprised look.
“Will he be okay?” asked Septimus.
Sam shrugged. “Yeah. I expect so.” Then he grinned. “He’ll be fine on the way back that’s for sure. Marissa will scare anything away.”
The two remaining brothers—Edd and Erik—laughed. Then one of them said, a little shyly, “Hello, Jen.”
“Hello, Edd,” said Jenna, equally shyly.
“Hey, you can tell.”
“Of course I can. I never got you muddled up, did I? Not even when you tried to fool me.”
Edd and Erik both laughed. “No, you didn’t, not once,” said Erik, remembering that they could sometimes fool even their mother—but never Jenna.
Sitting by the warmth of the campfire, with the comforting snap and crackle of the logs and the faint sizzle of a row of tiny fish cooking in the background, Jenna listened to Septimus and Beetle as they related what they had heard that night from the other side of the tepee.
“Well, that’s just stupid,” she said. “Ephaniah wouldn’t do that. Anyway, he couldn’t. No one can give a person to someone.”
“It’s different with witches,” said Septimus.
“I’d like to see them try,” said Jenna scornfully.
“He’s right, Jen,” said Sam. “It is different with witches. There are different rules—their rules. You think you are doing what you want, but then you find out that all along you’ve been doing what they want. Look at Jo-Jo.”
“Jo-Jo’s doing exactly what he wants,” sniggered Edd and Erik.
“Yeah. He thinks,” Sam muttered.
There was silence. Septimus picked up a stick and began to poke it into the fire.
“What about Ephaniah?” Jenna suddenly said.
“He’ll understand,” said Septimus.
“He won’t. All he’ll know is that we’ve gone.”
“We had to go, Jen. You were going to end up as a Wendron Witch.” Jenna snorted in disbelief. “Well, you were.”
Jenna sighed. She, too, picked up a stick and jabbed at the fire angrily. She felt as if Nicko was forever just slipping out of reach. And somehow it was always something to do with her.
“You want some fish?” asked Sam, who had a great belief in the power of fish to keep the peace around the campfire.
No one felt very hungry after the wolverine stew, but they nodded anyway.
Sam had his own system of cooking fish. He threaded each one onto a thin skewer of damp wood and laid it on the Sam Heap Fish-Cooker—a rickety metal tripod set up over the fire that had an alarming habit of collapsing when least expected. Sam selected the three best fish and passed them to Jenna, Septimus and Beetle. Beetle took his fish-on-a-stick a little reluctantly; he was not a great fish fan and it didn’t help that his fish seemed to be staring at him reproachfully.
Beetle stared back at the fish and steeled himself to take a bite.
“Something wrong with your fish, Cockroach?” asked Sam.
“’S not Cockroach, Sam,” said Septimus with a mouth full of what was, in fact, extremely good fish. “It’s Bee—” He was interrupted by a sudden crashing through the trees behind them. With well-tuned Forest reflexes, Sam, Edd and Erik leaped to their feet brandishing sticks, ready to defend the camp. A small Forest leopard shot out of the trees, ran straight at the campfire in a blind panic, swerved to avoid it—and Ullr—and disappeared into the Forest on the other side.
“That’s weird,” said Sam. “What got into him?”
The answer to Sam’s question emerged from the trees brandishing a torch, and strode into Camp Heap with a proud air.
Beside him was the young witch, Marissa. Marissa was as tall as Jo-Jo with long wavy brown hair held back with a plaited leather headband that was identical to the one Jo-Jo wore. She allowed Jo-Jo to usher her to the campfire, where he tossed the burning torch into the flames with a triumphant flourish.
Jo-Jo threw himself down beside the fire and pulled Marissa down with him. Marissa settled, fussing with her dark green witch’s cloak—over which she had sewn dozens of little bunches of colored feathers. She looked like an exotic bird roosting with a troupe of scruffy sparrows. Still on a high from his successful and scary—though he would be the last to admit it—trip through the nighttime Forest, Jo-Jo grabbed a fish and gulped it down in one bite. A little late, he remembered his manners and offered one to Marissa, but the young witch did not notice. Her eyes were fixed on Jenna, Septimus and Beetle on the other side of the campfire. “What are you doing here?” she asked suspiciously.
“Same as you,” said Septimus, determined to give nothing away.
“But you’re the Witch Mother’s guests.” Marissa was indignant. “You can’t leave just like that. No one does that.”
Septimus shrugged and said nothing, the ways of Camp Heap rubbing off on him. He was learning from his brothers that you didn’t have to explain yourself if you didn’t want to—and that sometimes, with a witch, it was better not to.
Marissa sat frowning at the fire. Jo-Jo offered her the fish once again but she angrily shook her head. “I ought to go back,” she muttered.
“Back?” asked Jo-Jo, incredulous.
“Yes. Back. Take me back, Joby-Jo.”
Jo-Jo looked stunned. “What—now?”