Every year the Castle inhabitants flocked to the Traders' Market to stock up on winter provisions of woolen cloth, candles, lanterns, salted fish, dried meats and fruits, fur and sheepskins before the Big Freeze blew in and cut off the Castle for six weeks or so. People also ate the hot pies, roasted nuts, and crumbly cakes and drank gallons of the huge varieties of spiced mulled drinks for sale. And when they were weary of shopping, they would sit and watch jugglers, fire dancers and acrobats tumbling in the roped-off space in front of the Traders' Office.
Despite the apparent chaos, the market was meticulously organized. Rigorous standards were applied to all traders, pitches were allocated under a strict licensing system and the marketplace was pided into sectors according to the kinds of goods sold. Generally the Northern Traders' Market was an orderly affair, but the final day was a frenetic time and the market was packed. Crowds of people moved from stall to stall, grabbing bargains, buying things they didn't really need "just in case," taking a last chance to buy MidWinter feast presents. The tall, pale-eyed Northern Traders cried out their wares at the tops of their voices, trying to sell all the odds and ends that no one had wanted - up until now. The urgency in their lilting singsong voices carried over the hubbub and reminded people that the MidWinter Feast was only a few days away, and then the Big Freeze was coming.
Every year of her life - bar one, the year she had turned ten - Jenna had visited the craft section, known as Makers' Mile. Makers' Mile was a relatively new section of the market; it extended out of the official market place, straggled along the road and ran around the outside of the large, brick-paved circle at the end of Ceremonial Way. As Jenna had grown older she would wander along the Mile, silently planning her perfect present list for her birthday. She had rarely received anything on the list, but it didn't take away the fun of dreaming. This year Jenna had found nothing remotely funny to give to Septimus in the main market and decided to head out along Makers' Mile for a last visit. As she elbowed her way toward it through the fur and prepared skins area and caught the overpowering smell of Foryx fur, Jenna noted wryly that the normal Castle respect for the Princess did not apply in the market.
At last she emerged into the infinitely more sweet-smelling Makers' Mile. With her old feeling of birthday anticipation, Jenna began to wander along, browsing the stalls. By the time she had walked around the circle twice, Jenna had still not found anything funny to give Septimus, but she suspected the reason had more to do with how she was feeling about Septimus than any of the goods that were on offer. She decided to head for her favorite stall - silver jewelry and lucky charms - which she had spotted near the Makers' Mile Tally Hut.
The stall belonged to Sophie Barley, a talented young Port jeweler. (Unlike the rest of the market, Makers' Mile had stalls available to those who were not Northern Traders. They were mainly taken by those who lived in the Port, as Castle people preferred to buy from the market rather than sell.) Jenna was surprised to find that instead of the friendly Sophie, the stall was manned by three odd-looking women dressed in varying shades of black. Behind the stall, in an old armchair, was slumped an elderly woman with her face plastered in thick white makeup and her eyes closed. The old woman was watched over by a slight figure swathed in a muddy black cloak with a voluminous hood.
"Ooh, it's the Princess!" Jenna heard an excited whisper escape from beneath the hood.
"Leave this to me, dingbat," came the response from the fiercest-looking woman in the stall, who was clearly the boss and who - Jenna saw as she briefly glanced up - had a very nasty stare.
The boss eyeballed Jenna. "How may I help you?" she asked. The two other stallholders - a lanky woman with her hair piled on top of her head like a spike and a short, dumpy one with food stains down her front - nudged each other and giggled behind the boss's back.
The last thing Jenna wanted was help. Sophie always let her browse and try on anything she liked. And Sophie certainly didn't snatch the first thing she picked up and say, "That will be half a crown. We don't give change. Wrap it up, Daphne," which is what the boss-with-the-stare did with the delicate heart-shaped pendant with tiny wings that Jenna had lifted from its velvet pad.
"But I don't want to buy it," Jenna protested.
"So what'd you pick it up for?"
"I just wanted to look at it."
"You can look at it on the table. We charge extra for picking up."
Jenna stared at the woman. She was sure she'd seen her somewhere before - and her sidekicks too.
"Where's Sophie?" she asked.
"Sophie. Sophie Barley. It's her stall. Where is she?"
The boss-with-the-stare bared a row of blackened teeth. "She couldn't make it. She's a bit . . . tied up at the moment." Her two sidekicks giggled nastily.
Jenna began to move away. The jewelry didn't seem nearly as nice without Sophie.
"Wait a minute!" a high voice shouted urgently. Jenna stopped and turned. "We've got some lovely Charms. And we don't charge for picking up Charms, do we?"
"Shut up, Dorinda!" The boss-with-the-stare wheeled around and glared at the hooded figure standing beside the old woman. "I'm doing this." The boss turned back to face Jenna and her mouth twitched into a kind of U-shape which, Jenna realized, was meant to be a smile. "We do indeed have a delightful new range of Charms, Princess. Very pretty. Quite charming, in fact." A strange spluttering ensued, which Jenna thought was probably meant to be laughter, although quite possibly the woman was choking on something. It was hard to tell.
The boss indicated two little wooden boxes at the front of the stall. Intrigued, Jenna looked at them - they were so very different from the rest of Sophie's jewelry. Nestled on white down inside each box was a tiny jewellike bird. The birds had a beautiful greenish-blue sheen and shimmered like the kingfishers Jenna had once loved to watch from her window in the Ramblings. Despite herself, Jenna was fascinated. She gazed at the birds, amazed at their minute feathers, which were so detailed that she could almost believe the birds were real. Tentatively she reached out a finger and stroked the plumage of one of the birds - and snatched her hand away as if it had been bitten. The bird was real. It was soft and warm and lay breathing terrified, fast breaths.
The old woman in the armchair snapped her eyes open like a doll that has just been sat up. "Pick up the birdie, dearie," she said in a wheedling whine.
Jenna stepped back from the stall and shook her head.
The boss-with-the-stare swung around and glared at the old woman. "I said leave it to me, didn't I?" she snapped. "Idiot!"
"Oooh!" A gasp of thrilled horror came from the hooded figure.
The old woman was not as decrepit as Jenna had taken her to be. She rose menacingly from her armchair and pointed a long, dirty fingernail at the boss-with-the-stare. "Never, ever, talk to me like that again," she hissed.
The boss-with-the-stare went as white as the old woman's plastered face. "Sorry, Wi - " She stopped herself hurriedly. "Sorry," she mumbled.
Suddenly Jenna realized who the stallholders were. "Hey!" she exclaimed. "You're - "
The boss-with-the-stare leaned forward and glared at Jenna. "Yeah - what?" she challenged.
Jenna decided against saying she thought the women were witches from the Port Witch Coven. "Not very nice," she said, a little lamely. Then she made a hasty exit, leaving all five witches - for she was right - cackling uproariously.
The Port Witch Coven watched Jenna disappear into the crowd.
"I knew it wouldn't work," Daphne - the dumpy one with the food stains - said morosely. "Princesses are hard to catch. The Wendrons tried and they couldn't get her."
"Pah!" snorted the boss-with-the-stare, whose name was Linda. "The Wendrons are fools. They've got a few lessons to learn. And I'm looking forward to teaching them." She laughed unpleasantly.
A plaintive wail came from inside the hooded figure sitting beside the old woman - who was, of course, the Witch Mother of the Port Witch Coven. "But she didn't take the bird, she didn't take the bird!"
"And you can shut up too, Dorinda," snarled Linda. "Any-way, it doesn't matter - she touched the bird, didn't she?"
Linda leaned over the two little birds. She took a deep breath in, then breathed out, sending what looked like a long stream of gray smoke curling around them. The blanket of breath settled over the tiny boxes and the witches gathered around to watch. A few moments later fluttering could be seen, and two minute, iridescent birds flew up from their boxes. Fast as a cat, Linda snatched the birds out of the air and held them up triumphantly, one in each hand.