“Jenna!” Sarah called after her.
Jenna stopped at the walled gate that led into a covered way to the Palace. “What?”
Sarah picked her way along the icy gravel path to where Jenna waited impatiently. Unlike Sarah, Jenna liked to get things done as soon as she had thought of them. Sarah put her hand on Jenna’s arm.
“Aunt Zelda is not quite as . . .” Sarah searched for the right word. “Er, Aunt Zelda-ish as she used to be. She is getting very forgetful—you know she forgot to come to the wedding. She doesn’t always realize she forgets, but it upsets her when she does. Don’t . . . well, don’t expect too much.”
“But she has to do it, Mum. It is her job as Keeper.”
Sarah looked at Jenna fondly. “I know. When will you be back, love?”
“As soon as I can,” Jenna replied. She gave Sarah a quick kiss and ran off along the covered way toward a small door at the foot of the east turret.
Sarah watched her go. She thought how Jenna had grown up during the past month. She thought how Queenly she looked. Sarah smiled at the idea of her little girl being Queen. It will suit her, she thought. She is ready now.
Inside the Palace, Jenna ran up the winding turret stairs. She arrived breathless at the top landing and from a pocket deep in her tunic she took a gold key with a large red stone set into its bow. She stepped forward, pushed it into what appeared to be a blank wall and quickly jumped backward. She waited for a few seconds, then walked forward and disappeared through the wall.
Many miles away, in a stone cottage on an egg-shaped island at the southern edge of the Marram Marshes, Jenna emerged from a tiny cupboard under the stairs.
“Aunt Zelda,” she called softly. There was no reply. Jenna looked around the room she knew so well. A fire was burning in the hearth, the floor was neatly swept and the potion bottles that lined the walls sparkled with different colors. The room itself was long and low with a flight of stairs going up the middle, below which was the Unstable Potions and Partikular Poisons cupboard from which Jenna had just emerged. Aunt Zelda’s cottage only had two rooms—one upstairs and one downstairs. Jenna did not count the kitchen, which was tacked onto the back and felt more like Sarah Heap’s potting shed than a real room. She walked up the stairs and glanced around the long, low attic room. The beds were made, the room neat and tidy—and completely empty of Aunt Zelda.
Jenna went back downstairs. “Aunt Zelda?” she called once more, but there was still no reply. She must be out with Wolf Boy, thought Jenna, probably cutting cabbages or making sure there was a hole in the ice for the ducks. She decided to wait for them to come back.
Jenna wandered around, enjoying just being in the cottage on her own. Aunt Zelda’s cottage was a special place for her. That morning it was alive with light reflected from the snow piled up outside, which, combined with the smell of the woodsmoke and the underlying odor of boiled cabbage, took her right back to the happy weeks that she had once spent in the cottage during a previous Big Freeze. Jenna loved the quiet orderliness of the cottage, the walls lined with books and hundreds of potion bottles, the low rough-hewn beams hung with all manner of interesting things, some that reminded her of Aunt Zelda: bags of shells, gardening hats, bundles of reeds, cabbage cutters, bunches of herbs, and some that announced the fact that the cottage was now Wolf Boy’s home too: a selection of fishing rods, nets and a fine collection of catapults.
Jenna walked over to the fire and stood warming her hands, careful not to disturb the duck asleep on a cushion by the hearth. A sudden gust of wind brought down a shower of frozen snow from the cottage roof; it clattered against the thick green windowpanes and made her jump. Jenna decided she had had enough of being alone in the cottage—she would go and find Aunt Zelda and Wolf Boy.
The icy cold shocked Jenna as she stepped outside. She had forgotten how much colder the Marram Marshes were than the Castle, especially when the east wind blew. Today the east wind was blowing hard, sending flurries of ice particles scooting across the top of the snow and a raw chill into her bones.
She set off along the cleared path, which led down to the plank bridge that crossed the frozen Mott—the large ditch that surrounded Aunt Zelda’s cottage. Jenna stopped and, shielding her eyes against the glare of the snow, she looked around for Aunt Zelda or Wolf Boy. There was no sign of them, nothing except the great expanse of white blurring out in front of her. She turned and looked back at the small stone cottage piled high with snow, which reached up to its low eaves and made the cottage look like an igloo. The warm glow from the fire shone through the windows and Jenna was very tempted to go back inside, but she told herself sternly that the sooner she found Aunt Zelda, the sooner she could get back to the Dragon Boat.
Jenna knew that on Draggen Island—the island on which Aunt Zelda’s cottage stood—all paths eventually led to a cabbage patch; and a cabbage patch was where she was sure to find Aunt Zelda. Deciding to keep the biting wind behind her, Jenna turned right and began to walk along the path beside the Mott.
Jenna had forgotten just how much she loved being out on the Marshes. She loved the wide windswept sky that seemed to go on forever, the exhilaration of being alive in the middle of so much wildness, but most of all she loved the quietness. In the summer it was punctuated by the gloops and glugs of unseen Marsh creatures, but in the winter the denizens of the Marsh buried themselves deep in the cold mud. They drifted into a long, slow sleep and the Marshes fell silent. The snows of the Big Freeze brought the thickest, softest, most perfect silence of all and Jenna reveled in it. She walked slowly, carefully placing her boots upon the snow so that they made no sound, and pulled her cloak up to quiet the soft swish swish it made as it brushed across the snow.
So, when a heavy thud sounded behind her, Jenna very nearly fell onto the frozen Mott in shock. She spun around and gave a loud shriek. Septimus stood on the path with a just-landed-out-of-nowhere look to him. He was swaying slightly, wreathed in a weird purple glow.
“Sep!” Jenna gasped. “What . . . I mean . . . where did you . . . how did you?”
Septimus was speaking but no sound emerged. Only when the last wisp of Magyk evaporated could Jenna hear what Septimus was saying.
“. . . was a close one, Jen. Really sorry, I didn’t expect anyone to be out here—especially you. What are you doing here?”
“What am I doing here?” Jenna laughed. “I’m just walking. You know, boring stuff, one foot in front of the other? I’m not suddenly appearing out of nowhere with little purple lights flickering all over me.”
“Just my job, Jen.” Septimus grinned.
“Was that one of those Transport things?” Jenna asked.
Septimus looked a little smug. “Yep, it was one of those Transport things.”
“All the way from the Castle?” Jenna sounded impressed.
“Yep. Pretty good, huh?” Happy to be out in the sunshine at long last—and doing something interesting—Septimus linked his arm through Jenna’s and began walking toward the cottage.
“If you want Aunt Zelda, she’s not there,” said Jenna. “I’ve come out to look for her.”
“Oh. Well, I do want to see Aunt Zelda, of course I do, but really it’s her flask I want,” said Septimus. “Or rather, that Marcellus wants.”
“Flask? What flask?”
Septimus shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ve never seen it but Marcellus says she keeps it in a cupboard. One that he built especially for it.”
“Marcellus built a cupboard for Aunt Zelda?” Jenna was amazed. “She never said.”
“No, not for Aunt Zelda; he built it for Broda, his wife. You know, she was Keeper when Marcellus was young. I mean when he was first young—in Queen Etheldredda’s time. Your lovely ancestor, Jen,” he teased.
“I know all about Broda—I met her. And if you’re not careful, Septimus Heap, when I am Queen I will be just like Etheldredda and make all Wizard Apprentices come and weed the Palace garden every Saturday.” Jenna laughed.
“She didn’t do that, did she?”
“Yep. It says so in my book.”
“Ah, your book.” Septimus smiled. He knew all about Jenna’s book, The Queen Rules. Jenna had an annoying habit of quoting passages from it.