“It shouldn’t do that, should it?” said Jenna.
“No,” said Beetle and Septimus together.
“That is just so typical of Milo,” Jenna said grumpily. “All his stuff is useless—and weird.”
“I’d say it was this forest that’s weird,” said Beetle, glancing around uncomfortably.
“Can I have a look, Jen?” asked Septimus. Jenna handed it to him, wondering if it would start to behave once Septimus held it. It didn’t. Septimus kneeled down and laid the map on the icy crust of the snow, brushing away the soft, fat snowflakes that were drifting onto it. “I don’t know where we are, but I’ll put the compass…um…” Septimus waved his hand over the map as if hoping for some kind of sign. He didn’t get one. “Here,” he said, and placed the compass on the bottom left-hand corner.
“You going to do a Navigate?” asked Beetle.
“But how’re you going to do it without the part we’re going to?” Beetle asked, pointing to the hole in the middle of the map.
“I thought maybe I could get it to take us to the edge of the hole,” said Septimus. “And then, who knows, we might be able to see the House of Foryx from there.”
“Yeah. Well, it’s worth a try—anything to stop that needle whizzing around like crazy. Gives me the creeps.”
Septimus took a fine wire cross from his Apprentice belt, straightened out a piece that had become bent and placed it on top of the compass. Jenna and Beetle peered over his shoulder. The compass needle continued to spin.
“It’s not working,” said Jenna anxiously.
“Give us a sec,” muttered Septimus. “I’ve got to remember what the thingy is.”
“Thingy?” asked Jenna.
“Technical term, Jen.”
Septimus placed his finger on top of the cross, closed his eyes and muttered, “X shall mark the spot.” Then he picked the fine wire cross off the compass and placed it on the edge of the hole in the middle of the map.
“About here?” he inquired. Jenna and Beetle nodded. Keeping his finger on the center of the wire cross, Septimus said,
“Lead us here through dale and dell.
Guide us true and guide us well.”
“It’s stopped!” Jenna gasped. The compass needle was now steady, its only movement being the slight tremble that a compass needle should have. “You’re amazing,” she said to Septimus.
“No, I’m not,” he replied. “Anyone could do it.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Jenna. “I couldn’t do it and neither could Beetle. Could you, Beetle?”
Beetle shook his head, but Septimus made a face. “It’s nothing special,” he said.
They set off with Septimus holding the compass, following the direction that the needle was pointing. Jenna carried the map, looking out for landmarks as they went, hoping to spot something. There were plenty on the map to choose from—criss-crossing paths, a winding stream with various bridges, standing stones, a well and a myriad of small huts scattered randomly across the map, neatly drawn with little pointed roofs and chimneys. Snorri had labeled these
“refuge.” Refuge from what? Jenna wondered. But all anyone could actually see in front of them was the wide, flat forest floor covered by a featureless blanket of snow.
They kept up a brisk pace, following the steadily pointing needle and keeping their eyes open for some kind of landmark, stopping briefly for some dried fish and spring water that Septimus had found at the top of his backpack.
After that they kept doggedly on, three small figures in their wolverine cloaks and an orange cat threading their way through the trees, the snow crackling beneath their boots as, with each step, they broke through the delicate ice crust.
Every twenty steps Septimus glanced behind him. This was something he had had to practice for hours on end in the Young Army during long hikes through the Forest and now it came back to him like an old familiar habit—Observe and Preserve
they had called it. Most of his glances revealed nothing except the great mass of trees ranked behind him and Jenna and Beetle struggling through the snow with a small flash of orange fur as Ullr bounded between them. But every now and then Septimus thought he saw something—a movement just on the edge of his vision. But Septimus said nothing. He didn’t want to scare the others and he hoped that maybe he was imagining things. The trees made odd shapes at the edge of your vision, he told himself—like one of those optical illusions that Foxy used to draw.
They were walking up a hill where the trees were so densely packed they had to go in single file, when Jenna noticed that the washed-out whiteness of the forest was growing dimmer. She glanced down at the map but found it hard to see Snorri’s delicate pencil marks in the dull light. “Hey, Beetle, what’s the time?” she asked.
Beetle peered at his timepiece. It was hard to see in the gloom. “It’s half past two,” he replied.
“So why is it getting dark?” asked Jenna.
Beetle looked around, puzzled. Jenna was right—it was getting dark. It was twilight.
“Maybe your timepiece is wrong,” suggested Septimus over his shoulder, increasing his pace. He wanted to get to the top of the hill fast.
“My timepiece isn’t what’s making it dark, is it?” Beetle puffed grumpily, trying to keep up. “The sun going down is doing that.”
“It might be a storm coming,” Septimus called back. “A snowstorm. Feels cold enough.”
Jenna stopped, noticing that Ullr was no longer at her side. “It’s not a snowstorm,” she said flatly. “It’s the sun going down. In fact it has just gone
down. Look.” There, coming toward them through the trees, was the NightUllr, blending in with the black tree trunks, his big panther feet stark against the white snow.
“Oh,” said Beetle. “Bother.”
“Come on, Beetle,” said Jenna, grabbing his hand. “Let’s catch up with Sep.”
Beetle smiled. Suddenly nighttime in the forest didn’t seem quite so bad.
At the top of the hill Septimus stopped and waited for Beetle and Jenna to catch up. He could hardly bear to look down.
He murmured a witchy good luck mantra—the kind that Marcia deeply disapproved of—and forced himself to look. In front of him was a broad, gentle slope much more sparsely covered with trees. And in the distance, shining out of the darkness, was a light. He grinned—sometimes witchy stuff worked. As he watched, and as all around grew ever darker, the pinpoint of light seemed to get brighter. By the time Jenna and Beetle joined him on the brow of the hill, it was shining like a beacon.
They set off down the hill, leaping through the snow. The small pack of wolverines—pursued by a panther—rapidly covered the ground and as they neared the valley floor they heard the sound of running water.
“It’s the stream on the map,” Jenna whispered, afraid to speak out loud in the darkness. “Which means that light…it must be a refuge hut—mustn’t it?” Her voice sounded almost pleading.
“It had better be,” said Septimus. His witchy chant was still going around his head and he felt hopeful—more hopeful than he had felt all day. He linked arms with Jenna and Beetle and together they waded through the snow, which was deeper in the valley and came up almost to their knees. Ullr bounded through it, no longer skating over the icy crust, his black fur sprinkled with white, the snow turning the whiskers on his chin to an old man’s beard.
Jenna and Beetle caught Septimus’s good mood. The gurgling of the stream broke the oppressive silence of the forest, and the yellow glow of the lantern illuminated the frosty snow before them. The combination of snow and lanterns made all three feel happy. For Jenna and Septimus, it reminded them of the time they had spent the Big Freeze together at Aunt Zelda’s—a time they both looked back on with happiness. For Beetle, it recalled Snow Days when he didn’t have to go to school—days full of possibilities when he would wake up to find that snow had completely covered the windows and his mother had lit the lantern and was cooking bacon and eggs over the fire.
As they came closer they could see that the light did indeed come from a small wooden hut with a stovepipe chimney, just like the ones that Snorri had drawn. It shone from a lantern placed in the tiny window above the door, which cast long shadows from the few trees that still stood between them and the hut.