It had been a surprisingly cold winter for England and indeed all of Great Britain, but Cat was still both surprised and thrilled to wake up one morning in December to snow falling thickly. Snow rarely came to Chrestomanci Castle in great quantities, and it was inevitable that Michael would find his class very distracted. Finally he had thrown up his hands and sent the eight of them out to play.
Janet and Julia immediately set to work building a snow griffin, with advice from Klartch. At first he'd tried to help, but proved early on that the soft snow tended to crumble in his claws. Joe and Roger had disappeared into their workshop, eagerly discussing plans for a self-propelled sleigh. This left Cat, Marianne and Tonino to their own devices.
Tonino still seemed dubious about the whole thing, at least to Cat, but then Caprona was even less likely to see snow than England. Marianne just looked worried - if the snow kept up, she and her brother would be stuck at the castle for the night and whilst that was unlikely to bother Joe, Marianne tended to be too responsible for her own good.
They dared not stray too far from the house - Michael might have given them the day off, but Chrestomanci was unlikely to be anywhere near as lenient and he might even decide that if they weren't with Michael, they might as well be working with him. Weather magics had been the order of the day, as he'd been very worried about the storms in Scotland and Wales. The chatter at dinner the previous night had focused solely on that and Cat had had enough for the moment.
"Do you think that this is because you freed the wild creatures?" Tonino asked, once they'd found a bench and settled down to decide what to do with their freedom.
"Maybe," Marianne replied, kicking the snow with her booted foot. "It's real - not like the world felt before we broke the barrier, doesn't it, Cat?"
"I'm not sure." Cat frowned. "The storm is natural, but I think it was nudged. Either the temperature or the wind - don't you feel it Marianne?" It was a very subtle manipulation, whatever it was. Dwimmer, not enchanter magic. "It's very faint though."
"Maybe I could strengthen it somehow, so we could follow it." Tonino offered cautiously. Things were better between Cat and Tonino since they had saved Gabriel, but even now they were somewhat wary of each other.
"Can you do that?" Marianne asked.
"I can try." Tonino stared at the snow, which was still falling lightly and Cat could see him tensing as he sent his powers into it.
"There, I can see it now." Marianne said. "It's darkest that way."
Cat could see it too, a light swirl of blue which followed the snowflakes as they fell and created spirals and twists on the ground, constantly changing like a blue and white kaleidoscope.
Without a word the three children stood and started walking towards where the blue was deepest and the snow was falling hardest. The path led them to the wood where all the magical creatures had been trapped. The trap was gone now, but Cat knew that some of them had settled there out of familiarity or because they knew it was safe now.
Following the path, they came to a small cottage that looked out of place in an English wood, with thick walls and ornately decorated shutters.
"Do we knock?" Marianne asked. She didn't give them a chance to answer but reached out for the ornate knocker and brought it down three times on the heavy wood door.
"You've come earlier than I expected. Good." She had large teeth and a thick Germanic accent. "Come in. If you can help me it will go well for you." Despite her fearsome appearance, she spoke so kindly that the children obeyed, if warily. A heavy old-fashioned stove sat in one corner of the room next to a closed door, the battered table in the centre held three mugs of something hot and steaming. The whole effect was very cosy.
Cat looked at the other too, then summoned up the courage to speak. "Did you cause this storm just to get our attention?"
To his surprise, the woman looked sadly at him. "Cause it, no, but I still have some power over the wind and weather. Dropping the temperature to bring you here was all I could manage, but it was enough to draw you here. I am Frau Holle. Perhaps you have heard of me?" She smiled tentatively. At their blank looks, she added, "In Germany, I am well known. When I shake out my bed so that the feathers fly about, it snows. But someone has stolen my duvet and is using it here in England. There is an order to these things that has been broken." She passed around the mugs and the three children accepted gratefully.
"Chrestomanci was talking about that last night," Marianne offered. "Change the weather in one part of the globe, and it throws everything out of balance. He's very worried about these storms. Why didn't you go to him? This is the best cocoa I've ever had."
Cat's mug had contained tea. He idly wondered what Tonino was drinking.
"I cannot. There are rules about what I can and cannot affect and children see what adults cannot. I diverted the spell you cast to lead you here, so that you did not walk into a trap. Stay on the path. Be polite. Follow the rules. I can give you each one gift to aid you on your return." To Cat she gave a mirror, to Marianne a comb, and to Tonino, she gave a spool of thread. "
The three children finished their drinks and Marianne insisted on washing out their mugs in the basin, to Frau Holle's obvious approval. "Go now, before he catches wind of your quest."
"Thank you," Tonino said, and the others followed suit. Best to start out properly.
The storm had grown worse whilst they were in the cottage, but they could now see a deep blue trail leading away. It was colder now, and the wind blowing the snow into their faces made it difficult to speak, so they fell silent, trudging through the snowdrifts.
The next house they came to was more ornate, and the blue swirled in ways that made all three children feel sick. Still, Marianne gamely climbed the steps to knock at the door.
"Go away." The voice was musical and the glimpse they had through the frosted panes of glass was of a beautiful girl.
"Please. We only want to come in and warm up. It's very cold out here," Cat tried in his most Gwendolyn like voice. He didn't like to resort to that but she'd been better at anyone he knew at wheedling people into doing what he wanted.
And it worked, "Oh, fine," the voice said and they heard bolts sliding open and a key being turned in a lock. "You're just children." She blinked at them. "You'll have to stay in the entry way. I don't want snow on my nice clean floors."
This house was the opposite of homey, all pale colours and delicate figurines and vases. It reminded Cat of the worst parts of the castle. The three snow-covered children dutifully stood crammed into the entryway, and Cat conjured a small spell to melt the snow off. He was very proud when it all dissipated into vapour without a drop getting on the floor.
The woman, who proved to be just as beautiful in person as Cat had seen through the glass, offered them neither her name nor a hot drink. But after Gwendolyn, Cat was inclined to distrust beauty so
"Please, can you let me use your loo? I'm dry now," Marianne asked shyly.
Cat thought this was clever of her.
The woman took Marianne's hand as though she were an infant and led him down the hall towards the back of the house. "You two stay there." She glared at them.
Tonino tried to move a step. "She's a very strong enchantress. Like the White Devil. I can see it. Can you break the spell with my help?"
"Maybe. If I had more time. And I think she'd notice. We'll have to figure out another way." Cat wished he had an idea on how to see if she had the duvet.
They didn't have time. A few minutes later the woman was back with Marianne. "You'd best be off now." She held open the door and glared until they'd piled back out into the snow.
"She didn't even try to be nice," Tonino noted. "The White Devil wrapped her words in honey, she was just not interested.
Marianne had started walking around the house. "I saw the duvet in her bedroom. She shut the door when I looked in as if she didn't want me in there."
"She didn't want us anywhere," Cat pointed out as he and Tonino followed her.
There were three windows at the back of the house and tiny rosebushes in little bags to protect them from the cold planted all along the back wall. Marianne stared for a moment and then undid one of the bags and pulled off a twig. "I can use this to rip the spell on the house without her knowing, I think. Cat, when I do, you pull the duvet out as quick as you can. Tonino, just keep an eye open and help whichever of us needs help." She stood carefully between two of the bushes and used the thorn to draw a line around the window, and then she opened the sash. "Cat, now."
He'd formed the spell already, so he threw it and gave a big tug as though he were pulling in a net. After a moment, he could feel Tonino helping him. Between the two of them, they managed to get it out on to the snow-covered back garden. Cat stared at it for a moment trying to figure out how they would get it back, then attempted to fold it. To his surprise, it folded easily, compressing into a smaller and smaller square, and with Tonino's help, he got it down to a size that fit into his pocket.
"Run," Marianne yelled, pointing at a face that had appeared in the window. So they ran.
"She's gaining on us," Cat said. They were still fighting the wind and the snow, though it seemed to be getting lighter.
To his surprise, Marianne pulled the comb that Frau Holle had given her out of her pocket, looked at it for a moment and then threw it behind her. Suddenly the forest behind them appeared twice as dense. "Don't stop, don't look back."
They ran and they ran and Cat considered. The comb had worked like the barrier between the place where the magical creatures had been trapped and their own world. But what would a mirror do.
The snow was starting to melt, steaming to vapour in suddenly warmer air.
"She's caught up," Tonino said breathlessly.
Cat had it suddenly, a memory of an old fairytale he'd once read. He carefully shaped the spell with both enchanter's magic and dwimmer and then threw the mirror behind him. He heard a splash as she ran straight into the lake he'd conjured, but he didn't look back.
The snow had stopped, and the path was easier. Cat knew that his spell wouldn't stop her for long. "Do you know what to do with the thread, Tonino?"
"I think so, but I'll need help." Tonino pulled the spool of thread from his pocket and the three paused for just a minute, focusing all their magic into it. He threw it behind them.
None of them looked back to see if the enchantress got caught in the tangled path they'd created. Cat could see Frau Holle's cottage ahead of them. He knew, without knowing why, that if they could get there, they'd be safe.
Frau Holle was waiting for them, holding the door open. Once all three of them were inside she let the door slam shut behind them. "Thank you." She walked to the door on the far side of the room. "I have one more task for you. Make my bed and make sure that the feathers fly."
They did as instructed, shaking the duvet until the room was covered in feathers.
"Thank you for all you have done for me," she said as she let them out the door. "I am assured that the next generation of enchanters will be wise and clever and brave. Once I am gone, your weather should return to normal."
The three children walked out into the snow. It was falling lightly again, and there were still several inches on the ground - just enough that Michael wouldn't be inclined to change his mind.
They walked back to the castle cheerfully.
"Where've you been?" Roger asked as they grew close. He and Joe had engineered a sledge big enough for two or three that was travelling beside them without any help.
"You wouldn't believe us if we told you," Cat said with what he hoped was an enigmatic smile.
Marianne giggled at that, then ducked just in time, as a snowball came out of nowhere and hit Joe on the shoulder.
Cat spied Janet making another one, so he grinned and scooped up some snow. "This means war."
Laughing, the others joined in the snowball fight. It wasn't often they had a snow day and they planned to make the most of it.