Wonted. Storng gril to cleen.
Clover Twig stood at the garden gate, staring in at the Witch's cottage--and the cottage stared right back. The windows were like black eyes--small, dark, and sunken. Ivy drooped over them, like hooded eyelids.
The gate was secured with a loop of old string. Clover pulled it free and gave a brisk push. The gateremained firmly closed. She pushed again. The gate said: "Take the hand off!"
The voice came from deep within the bars. It sounded bossy, like a guard in a museum who has spotted you blowing your nose on a priceless tapestry.
"What?" said Clover.
"Take the hand off!" This time, the order was accompanied by a puff of rust, most of which showered down onto Clover's boots.
"Well, thanks for that," said Clover, rather crossly. "I polished those this morning."
She had, too. She had gone out of her way to look her best. Her old green dress was faded, but clean and well pressed. Her brown cloak was getting to be a bit small for her, but she had let down the hem as far as it would go. Her brown hair was in tidy braids, and her clear blue eyes gazed out from a thoroughly scrubbed face. Altogether neat and respectable, which is how she liked to look.
"The hand. Take it off. Then go away."
Clover kept her hand right where it was. She wasn't about to be ordered around by an old gate, even if it did belong to a Witch.
"I'm not going anywhere," she said, firmly. "And I won't take my hand off until you give me a bit of service. How come you're able to talk, anyway?"
"How should I know? I'm a gate."
"I suppose it's some kind of magic spell, is it?"
"Not my department. I open, I shut. That's it."
Clover glanced up at the watchful windows. Behind one, she thought she saw a movement.
It's her, she thought. She's waiting in the dark behind the curtain. Waiting to see if I'm put off. Well, I'm not.
"Let me in," she said. "I'm here to see Mrs. Eckles."
"Name?" snapped the gate.
"Friend or foe?"
"Friend. But if I was a foe, I'd hardly be likely to say so, would I?"
"Oh ho! Back talking now. That's not going to get you in, is it?"
"What is, then?" Clover was getting tired of standing around arguing with a gate. She gave it another shove.
"Just don't push me," snapped the gate. "Purpose of visit?"
"I'm here about the job." Clover reached into her basket, produced an old envelope, and held it up. "See?"
On the back, in a spidery scrawl blissfully untroubled by punctuation and proper spelling were the following words:
WANTED STORNG GRIL TO CLEEN APPLY MRS ECKLES COTTAGE IN THE WUD SICKS PENS A WEEK BRING AN AYPRUN
Beneath was a small, rudimentary map, consisting of scribbled lines, thumb marks, and a lot of very badly drawn trees. In the middle was what looked like a toddler's attempt at drawing a house together with an arrow and the word ME!
Clover had spotted it the day before, crookedly pinned on the village notice board. It was the six pence that had caught her eye. Six whole pennies! Most cleaning jobs didn't pay more than four pence. It was too good to miss--although she had a feeling that her mother would have something to say.
"Password?" rapped the gate.
"You heard me."
"I don't know anything about a password."
"In that case," sneered the gate with relish, "admittance denied."
Just at that moment, a testy voice shouted: "Is that gate givin' you grief?" It came from behind the front door.
"Yes," called Clover. "It's going on about a password."
"Ah, it's just bein' difficult. Give it a kick."
"With pleasure," said Clover. And she drew back her foot and gave the gate a small, but very hard, kick. It flew open with a furious squeal of hinges.
"Thank you so very much," said Clover, and walked through with her nose in the air. Behind her, there came a huffy crash, which she ignored.
And then she was in the Witch's garden.
It wasn't a pretty sight. Thistles, nettles, and weeds, jostling for space. A collapsed washing line. A crumbling well. An old bucket lying on its side in the mud, trailing a frayed bit of rope. An ancient water barrel, covered with green scum. It didn't bode well.
Clover stared up the path, giving the cottage her full attention. It was old. Very old. The thatch was going bald. The walls were held together by creepers, and the whole structure sagged heavily to one side, as though it was too exhausted to stand up straight.
The cottage still had that watchful air, like it was inspecting her. Giving her the once-over.
Clover didn't even blink. She was good at staring. She wasn't about to lose a staring match with a pile of old bricks. Not after coming all this way.
Finding the cottage had taken forever. It was well off the beaten track, and the map was hopeless. But Clover had a stubborn streak and liked to finish what she started. She came from a large, hopelessly chaotic family. Somebody had to take charge and get things done.
The staring match was getting nowhere, so Clover decided to call it a draw. She thrust the paper into herpocket and walked up to the flaking front door, which unhelpfully lacked a knob, handle, knocker, or bell. She gave a brisk knock.
"I'm here," she called, half-expecting the door to talk back to her.
Silence. Clover waited, straightening a crease in her dress. She would have liked to have worn her better blue one, but it was torn. By Sorrel, of course--the youngest of her three sisters. She coveted Clover's blue dress and was always sneakily trying it on.
Clover rapped again.
"Mrs. Eckles? Are you there?"
She pressed her ear to the rough wood. Instantly, there was a strange, unpleasant tingling sensation. She jerked her head away, just as the testy voice came once again from somewhere inside.
"What you usin' that door for? It don't open. Sealed up with a protection spell. Go round the back. Left, past the outhouse, round the log pile. I'm waitin'."
Around the back was a big surprise. The front was dark and unwelcoming, but the back was very different. For a start, it was bathed in sunshine. Like the front, the back wall of the cottage was covered with a thick, ancient growth of ivy, but here it looked charming rather than sinister. A robin perched on one of the tendrils, singing its heart out.
There was an herb garden, a bird bath, and a patch of lawn, where two plump chickens strolled around searching for worms. There were flowers that didn't appear to pay any attention to seasonal rules. Bluebells, lavender, and roses were all in bloom at the same time. An ancient, sun-bleached bench was set at the far end, in the sunniest spot.
Best of all, in the middle of the lawn grew a cherry tree. It was covered in pink blossom. A bird feeder hung on a lower branch.
"Admirin' me tree?" said the voice from the doorway.
So. This was the Witch.
Clover had seen her from time to time, but usually in the distance, hobbling away from the village shop, whacking stray dogs and small children out of her way with a stick. She didn't seem very sociable. She never stopped to talk or gossip. She always wore the same clothes--an old black cloak, button boots, and, when it was raining, the traditional pointy hat. This was the first time that Clover had seen her close up.
She certainly looked the part. She had the hooked nose, the pointed chin, and the mad gray hair. No warts--but people often said warts were optional, like the extra finger. Clover did a quick finger count and was relieved to discover that Mrs. Eckles had the normal number.
But she had witchy eyes. Sharp, knowing, emerald green ones that didn't miss much.
"I were a girl when I planted that tree," said Mrs. Eckles. "Did it with me sister. Fought like blue blazes, 'cos there was only the one shovel. A wonder it survived. All them lightning bolts. All them sparks flyin' around. All that smoke."
"Goodness," said Clover, politely. "It sounds like quite a fight."
"It was. We didn't mess about." Mrs. Eckles folded her arms and looked Clover up and down. "I knows you. You're that young Clover Twig. Yer pa calls 'imself a woodcutter. Spends all his time in the Crossed Axes."
"He can't work right now," said Clover. "His back's been acting up."
"Yes, well, he's yer pa, you would stick up for 'im. Yer ma's certainly got 'er hands full. Too many kids to feed. You're the eldest. You'll be eleven next birthday."
"Yes," said Clover, surprised. "That's right."
"You got three sisters an' one little brother. Fern, Bracken, Sorrel, and Herbediah. Always wailin' for food."
"That's true." Clover gave a little sigh. "Things are tight right now. But they won't be so hungry if I work for you. I really need this job."
"Hmm. I dunno. I wanted strong. You don't look strong."
"I'm stronger than I look."
"Well, you gave that gate a good kick, I'll say that. But can you lift, unaided, all by yerself, a large double wardrobe?"
"I've never tried," said Clover. "Why, do you have one that needs moving?"
"No, but I might one day. Does yer ma know you're 'ere?"
"No," admitted Clover. "I thought I'd give her a surprise." She moved towards the doorstep and was just about to step up when Mrs. Eckles held up a hand and said: "That's far enough."
"What?" said Clover. "Are we waiting for something?"
"I'm decidin' whether to invite you over the threshold. I don't just let any old rough riff raff in. Could be thieves, conmen, anything."
"I'm not riff raff," said Clover.
"Plain old nosey parkers, then. No one comes in without an invitation. Place is all wired up with protection spells. Doorway, windows, chimney, all entry points covered. 'Specially the threshold. Used a double-strength one, it's a killer."
"So what would happen if I just walked in?"
"Try it and see. Mind yerself, though. Just stick yer hand out and use the tip of yer finger."
Clover leaned over the doorstep and cautiously extended a finger into the dark doorway. There was an instant horrible, tingling, buzzing sensation, which crackled up her arm in a very unpleasant manner.
Hastily, she snatched it back.
"Effective, ain't it?" said Mrs. Eckles, cheerfully. "Sorry, but you did ask. Anyway, you can come in now. I'm extendin' you an official invitation."
"You are?" said Clover, doubtfully, sucking her finger, which was developing a small, painful blister.
"Yep. In you come. Nothing'll 'appen. Not once you been properly introduced. Cottage, Clover Twig. Clover Twig, cottage. That's it, formalities over. Come on, come on, I won't eat yer."