At last, just as Jenna was beginning to wonder if Sam had made the whole thing up, the branches barring their way began to move slowly upward and like a spreading wave, all the other trees along the avenue followed suit. Sam beckoned them forward and silently they followed him along the newly opened path between the trees. As they went the trees lowered their branches behind them once more.
At the end of the avenue they emerged into a small clearing dominated by what appeared to be three large and unruly heaps of wood partly covered with turf, each with a ramshackle door in it.
“They’re old charcoal burner kilns,” said Septimus. “We used to really like those in the Young Army. They were always safe at night—and warm.”
Sam looked at Septimus with new respect. “Sometimes I forget you were in the Young Army,” he said. “You know the Forest too.”
“In a different way,” said Septimus. “It was always us against the Forest. You are with the Forest.”
Sam nodded. The more he saw of Septimus the more he liked him. Septimus understood stuff—you didn’t have to explain; he just knew.
“But actually,” said Sam, “these aren’t really charcoal burner kilns. These are the Forest Ways. Each leads to a different forest—so they say.”
Jenna looked at the three heaps of wood with dismay—it hadn’t occurred to her that there would be a choice of forests.
“But how can we tell which one is the forest we want?” she asked.
“Well, I suppose we could open the doors and take a look,” said Sam.
“Really?” asked Jenna. “We don’t have to go in?”
“No, why should you? There are no rules in the Forest, you know.”
Beetle wasn’t so sure about that. There seemed to him to be a lot of rules—rules about wearing smelly wolverine skins and rules about keeping quiet, to name but two, but he didn’t say anything. He felt like a new boy at school, trying to keep out of the way of creatures that were bigger than him and understand a strange place all at once. He watched the confident Sam pull open the door to the middle heap. A blast of hot air hit them.
“That one’s desert,” said Sam as a swirl of sand blew out over his feet.
“But I thought they were forests,” said Jenna.
“These are Ancient Ways, and forests change,” said Sam. “What was once a forest may become a desert. What was once a desert may become a sea. All things must change with time.”
“Don’t say that,” said Jenna sharply.
Sam looked at Jenna, surprised—and then realized what he had said. “Sorry, Jen. Nik will be the same old Nik when you find him, you wait. Let’s see if this is the one you want.” Sam closed the door on the desert and opened the door of the left heap. A humid heat drifted out and the raucous sound of parrots invaded the Forest peace. “That one?” asked Sam.
“No,” said Jenna.
“Yep,” said Septimus.
“Okay, must be this one, then.” With a dramatic flourish Sam pulled open the door to the last heap. A flurry of snow blew into their faces. Jenna licked her lips; the metallic taste of a snowflake from another land brought her a little closer to Nicko.
“That’s it,” she said.
“You sure?” asked Sam.
“I know it is. Nicko made a list. Of warm stuff and furs.”
“Right. Okay…if you’re sure.” Suddenly Sam no longer seemed his usual confident self. It was one thing for Sam to guide the occasional lost stranger from a desert caravan or a capsized jungle canoe back to their own forest, but quite another to send his young brother and sister off into the unknown. “Let me come with you,” he said.
Septimus shook his head. This was something he wanted to do without his older brother telling him how to do it. “No, Sam. We’ll be fine.”
“Really, Sam, we will,” said Jenna. “And we’ll be back soon with Nicko.”
“And Snorri,” added Septimus.
Another flurry of snow blew out. Sam undid the red kerchief he wore around his neck. He tied it to the top of his walking pole and gave it to Septimus. “Put this in the ground to mark where you came in,” he said. “I hear it’s hard to tell once you’re in there.”
“Thanks,” said Septimus.
“’S’okay,” mumbled Sam.
“Oh, Sam,” said Jenna, hugging him tightly. “Thank you, thank you so much.”
“Yeah,” said Sam.
They stepped into the kiln and their feet sank deep into the snow.
Sam waved. “Bye. Bye, Jen, Sep, Cockroach. Take care.” And then he closed the door.
J enna, Ullr, Septimus and Beetle stepped out into the middle of a silent, snowy forest.
Septimus pushed Sam’s walking pole into the snow to show where they had come in—Sam was right, there was nothing to mark the spot at all. The red scarf hung down limply. No breath of air disturbed it; all was still. The three looked at one another but said nothing—no one felt like breaking the heavy silence that covered them like a blanket. All they could see was snow and trees—so densely packed that their black trunks felt like great bars of a cage encircling them.
The snow fell steadily, dropping from the branches high above and landing lightly on their hair and faces. Jenna brushed the snowflakes from her eyelashes and looked up. The trunks of the trees were thin and smooth and did not branch out until the very top, when they spread wide and flat like a snowy parasol.
Jenna realized that they had all expected to find themselves on a path, but there was nothing—just a featureless, flat wilderness of trees radiating in all directions. No footsteps led to where they stood and there was no way of knowing which direction was forward and which was back. It was, she thought, as if they had been dropped into the middle of the forest by a huge bird.
“Let’s look at the map, Jen,” Septimus whispered.
Jenna took off the backpack, pulled out Nicko’s book and extracted the neatly folded map. Septimus held the map for the first time. It crackled with ReStore
fluid, yet it felt flexible and strong. Septimus liked maps; he was used to them from his time in the Young Army when he had been a good map-reader. But as he looked at Snorri’s finely detailed pencil lines, he realized that he had always taken one thing for granted—he had started off knowing where he was.
“Where are we?” asked Beetle, peering over his shoulder.
“Good question,” replied Septimus. “We could be anywhere. There are no landmarks…nothing.” He wiggled his finger through the hole in the middle of the map. “We could even be here.”
“No, we couldn’t,” Jenna said. “That is the House of Foryx.”
“That’s what we think it is,” said Septimus. “But we don’t know for sure what’s on the missing piece, do we?”
Jenna did not reply. She refused to even think
that they were not heading for Nicko and the House of Foryx. She rummaged through the two deep silk-lined pockets in her red woolen tunic, hoping that, for once, she might have something useful with her. Jenna tried to remember if she had rescued it from the floor after she had thrown it across her room in a fit of temper when her real father, Milo, had told her he was off once more on his seafaring travels. Her hand closed around a cold metal disc and she grinned. “I’ve got a compass,” she said.
“You’ve got a compass?” said Septimus.
“Yes. No need to sound so surprised.”
“But you never carry anything with you, Jen.”
Jenna shrugged irritably. It was true—she never took anything with her. When her tutor had pointed out approvingly that this was something Princesses and Queens were known for, Jenna had felt embarrassed. She didn’t want to act all Princessy—and the idea of being Queen was still just plain weird. But after the tutor’s comment, Jenna had deliberately tried to keep some things in her pocket—even if they were not obviously useful—just to prove her tutor wrong. And now Milo’s compass, which had been no use whatsoever for paying for a packet of rainbow chewy turtles in Ma Custard’s, came into its own. Jenna held out the small brass compass and they watched the needle spin round…and round…and round, like a watch on fast-forward.