"But from the Causeway to the Port. Do you have that one?" Aunt Zelda's bright blue, witchy eyes looked anxious.
"Of course I do. But I don't need it. I remember that all right."
"Oh, dear," Aunt Zelda said with a sigh. "Oh, I do hope you'll be safe, Wolf Boy dear."
Wolf Boy looked down at Aunt Zelda, something that had only very recently become possible - a combination of him growing fast and Aunt Zelda becoming a little more stooped. He put his arms around her and hugged her hard. "I'll be fine," he said. "I'll be back tomorrow, like we said. Listen for me about midday."
Aunt Zelda shook her head. "I don't Hear so well nowadays," she said a little wistfully. "The Boggart will wait for you. Now, where is he?" She scanned the Mott, which was filling fast with brackish water from the incoming tide. It had a thick, muddy appearance that reminded Wolf Boy of the brown-beetle-and-turnip soup that Aunt Zelda had boiled up for supper the previous evening. Beyond the Mott stretched the wide open flatness of the Marram Marshes, crisscrossed with long, winding ditches and channels, treacherous oozes, mile-deep mires and containing many strange - and not always friendly - inhabitants.
"Boggart!" called Aunt Zelda. "Boggart!"
"It's all right," said Wolf Boy, eager to be off. "I don't need the Bog - "
"Oh, there you are, Boggart!" Aunt Zelda exclaimed as a dark brown, seallike head emerged from the thick waters of the Mott.
"Yes. I is here," said the creature. He regarded Aunt Zelda grumpily from his large brown eyes. "I is here asleep. Or so I thought."
"I am so sorry, Boggart dear," said Aunt Zelda. "But I would like you to take Wolf Boy to the Causeway."
The Boggart blew a disgruntled mud bubble. "It be a long way to the Causeway, Zelda."
"I know. And treacherous, even with a map."
The Boggart sighed. A spurt of mud from his nostrils splattered onto Aunt Zelda's patchwork dress and sank into another muddy stain. The Boggart regarded Wolf Boy with a grumpy stare. "Well, then. No point hangin' about," he said. "Follow me." And he swam off along the Mott, cutting through the muddy surface of the water. Aunt Zelda enveloped Wolf Boy in a patchwork hug. Then she pushed him from her, and her witchy blue eyes gazed at him anxiously. "You have my note?" she said, suddenly serious.
Wolf Boy nodded.
"You know when you must read it, don't you? Only then and not before?"
Wolf Boy nodded once more.
"You must trust me," said Aunt Zelda. "You do trust me, don't you?" Wolf Boy nodded more slowly this time. He looked at Aunt Zelda, puzzled. Her eyes looked suspiciously bright.
"I wouldn't be sending you if I didn't think you could do this Task. You do know that, don't you?"
Wolf Boy nodded a little warily.
"And...oh, Wolf Boy, you do know how much I care for you, don't you?"
"Of course I do," muttered Wolf Boy, beginning to feel embarrassed - and a little concerned. Aunt Zelda was looking at him as though she may never see him again, he thought. He wasn't sure if he liked that. Suddenly he shook himself free from her grasp.
"Bye, Aunt Zelda," he said. He ran to catch up with the Boggart, who had already reached the new plank bridge over the Mott and was waiting impatiently. Warmly swathed in her padded quilt dress, which she had spent much of the winter sewing, Aunt Zelda stood beside the Mott and watched Wolf Boy set off across the marshes. He took what appeared to be a strange, zigzagging route, but Aunt Zelda knew that he was following the narrow path that ran beside the twists and turns of Snake Ditch. She watched, shading her old eyes against the light that came from the vast skies above the Marram Marshes, the light uncomfortably bright even on an overcast day. Every now and then Aunt Zelda saw Wolf Boy stop in response to a warning from the Boggart, and once or twice he nimbly jumped the ditch and continued on his way on the opposite side. Aunt Zelda watched for as long as she could, until the figure of Wolf Boy disappeared into the bank of mist that hovered over the Doom Sludge Deeps - a bottomless pit of slime that stretched for miles across the only route to the Port. There was only one way through the Deeps - on hidden stepping stones - and the Boggart knew every safe step. Aunt Zelda walked slowly back up the path. She stepped into Keeper's Cottage, gently closed the door and leaned wearily against it. It had been a difficult morning - there had been Marcia's surprise visit and her shocking news about Septimus's Queste. The morning had not improved after Marcia had left, because Aunt Zelda had hated sending Wolf Boy off on his Task, even though she knew it had to be done. Aunt Zelda sighed heavily and looked around her much-loved cottage. The unaccustomed emptiness felt strange. Wolf Boy had been with her for over a year now, and she had grown used to the feeling of another life being lived beside her in the cottage. And now she had sent him away to...Aunt Zelda shook her head. Was she crazy? she asked herself. No, she told herself sternly in reply, she was not crazy - it had to be done. Some months before, Aunt Zelda had realized that she was beginning to think of Wolf Boy as her Apprentice - or Intended Keeper, as tradition had it. It was time she took one on. She was getting toward the end of her Keeping Time, and she must begin to hand over her secrets, but one thing worried her. There had never been a male Keeper in the long history of Keepers. But Aunt Zelda didn't see why there shouldn't be. In fact, she thought, it was about time that there was one - and so, with much trepidation, she had sent Wolf Boy away to do his Task, the completion of which would qualify him to become an Intended, providing the Queen agreed.
And now, thought Aunt Zelda, as she perused her rack of cabbage-trimmers, looking for the crowbar, while he was away she must do her very best to make sure the Queen did agree to Wolf Boy's appointment.
"Aha! There you are." Aunt Zelda addressed the lurking crowbar, reverting to her old habit of talking to herself when she was on her own. She took the crowbar from the rack, then walked over to the fire and rolled back the rug in front of the hearth. Huffing and puffing, she kneeled down, pried up a loose flagstone and then, gingerly rolling up her sleeve (because the Great Hairy Marram Spider made its nest under the flagstones, and this was not a good time of year to disturb it), Aunt Zelda cautiously drew out a long silver tube hidden in the space below.
Holding the tube at arm's length, Aunt Zelda inspected it warily. A sudden stab of horror ran through her - clinging to the end was a glistening white clutch of Great Hairy Marram Spider eggs. Aunt Zelda screamed and did a wild dance, shaking the tube violently, trying to dislodge the eggs. However, the slime had coated the silver tube and it flew from her grasp, traced a graceful arc across the room and sailed through the open kitchen door. Aunt Zelda heard the telltale splash of something landing in brown-beetle-and-turnip soup, which now became brown-beetle-turnip-and-spider-egg soup. (That evening Aunt Zelda boiled the soup and had it for supper. At the time she thought the flavor much improved by the extra day it spent sitting on the stove, and it was only afterward that it crossed her mind that maybe spider eggs had something to do with it. She went to bed feeling somewhat nauseous.)
Aunt Zelda was about to rescue the tube from the soup when, out of the corner of her eye, she saw something move. Two huge, hairy legs were feeling their way out from the space beneath the flagstone. With a shudder, Aunt Zelda heaved up the flagstone and let go. It slammed down with a thud that shook the cottage - and parted mommy spider from her babies forever.
Aunt Zelda retrieved the silver tube, then sat down at her desk and revived herself with a cup of hot cabbage water into which she stirred a large spoon of Marshberry jam. She felt shaken - the spider had reminded her of what she had sent Wolf Boy off to do and what she had once also been dispatched to do by Betty Crackle. She sighed once more and told herself that she had sent Wolf Boy off as well-prepared as she could - and at least she hadn't written the note on cardboard, as Betty Crackle had done. Carefully Aunt Zelda wiped off the brown-beetle-turnip-and-spider-egg soup from the tube. She took out a small silver knife, cut the wax seal and drew out an ancient, damp-stained piece of parchment with the words "Indentures of the Intended Keeper" ritten at the top in old-fashioned, faded letters.
Aunt Zelda spent the next hour at her desk Naming Wolf Boy in the Indentures. Then, in her very best handwriting, she wrote out her Petition for Apprenticeship for the Queen, rolled it up with the Indentures and put them both into the silver tube. It was nearly time to go - but first there was something she wanted to get from the UNSTABLE POTIONS AND PARTIKULAR POISONS cupboard.