‘We need to get down river,’ I told it. ‘About five miles, give or take. Could you help us out?’
Lou stared at me as if I were crazy. ‘Are you having a conversation with a wild animal? Does it even understand what a mile is?’
Probably not but I reckoned it got the gist. It chittered and jerked its head to the right. Whatever that meant.
‘Something’s up there,’ I said softly to Lou. ‘Can you go have a look?’
She edged away. I got the impression that she was glad to have a reason to put some distance between us. I shrugged at the otter; I wasn’t being that weird, was I? The otter seemed to agree with Lou, however. It blinked at me warily and backed down to the river, obviously keen to leave. I inclined my head and let it go. If I’d felt fresher, I’d have been tempted to persuade it to pull us all along with some of its otter buddies.
Lou wasn’t long. She emerged from behind a tree and scratched her head. ‘There’s a boat tethered there.’
I clapped my hands. ‘Brilliant.’
‘We can’t take it, Ivy. That would be stealing.’
‘We’re only borrowing it.’
She shook her head. ‘It has a small motor. And there are keys still in the engine. Whoever it belongs to, they’re probably coming back. They’re going to need it.’
Huh. I tilted my head and listened. There was no one else near here; if there had been, the producers would have already shooed them away. I glanced at the cameraman, whose lens was still trained on my face, and considered.
‘It’s a set-up.’
Lou squinted at me. ‘Pardon?’
‘We’re in the middle of nowhere. What are the chances that there just happens to be a boat right next to the river that leads us to a camp? And that there are keys in the engine?’ I shook my head. ‘It’s too convenient. They’re setting us up. The producers, I mean.’
‘Do you really think they’d do that?’
I rolled my eyes at her. This was ‘reality’ television. Of course they would.
‘If that’s the case, then we have to leave it.’
‘Nope.’ I grinned. ‘If that’s the case then we absolutely have to take it. They’re trying to make television. We need to give the viewers something to shout about.’
‘We can’t steal it!’
I patted her on the back. ‘I told you. We’re just borrowing it.’
‘Don’t worry, Lou. If anyone complains, I’ll take the blame. We can be home and dry in less than an hour if we do this.’
Well, not exactly home as such. But at least somewhere I could finally get some real rest. If there wasn’t a nice fluffy pillow at this campsite, heads were going to roll.
Our meandering amble was rather pleasant. I wouldn’t call it peaceful, since Harriet had begun to snore with such force that the entire structure of the little boat shuddered. The noise she made was akin to a twenty-decibel drill, and I was still irritated that both she and Mike were sleeping while I had to stay awake. All the same, there was immense satisfaction in being on our way and probably far ahead of the other two teams.
Lou remained a bit twitchy at my casual theft of the boat but when no police came screaming out of the woods to clap her in chains – and when the trailing cameramen didn’t stop us – she seemed to relax a little. Well, she trailed her hands in the cool water and leaned back, so she couldn’t have been feeling too edgy.
A small log cabin had just come into view, with a little flag in the Enchantment colours perched on top of its roof, when there was an odd rustling from the bank on our left. I swung my head around, expecting to see another otter or perhaps a bird. Instead what appeared from the undergrowth was a sheep.
It trotted along to the edge of the river and began chewing nonchalantly at a clump of grass. But this wasn’t a farmer’s field and there were no other sheep in sight. I couldn’t prevent myself from stiffening in alarm.
I grabbed hold of the rudder and steered the boat in. It was probably nothing, it was probably just a damn sheep. All the same…
Lou sat up. ‘What is it?’
‘Scottish wildlife,’ I said, with far more cheeriness than I felt.
She glanced over, spotted the sheep and laughed. Then she immediately sobered up. ‘You’re not going to kill it, are you?’
My worry was overtaken by confusion. ‘What? No! Of course not!’
Lou exhaled. ‘Oh, good. I thought that you might, you know, want it for dinner. Or something.’
I had no illusions about where my supermarket meat came from but that didn’t mean that I wanted it in anything other than a neatly packaged polystyrene packet with cooking instructions included. I was most definitely not in the business of slaughter. Too messy, for one thing. Although given that my stomach chose that moment to grumble rather loudly in between Harriet’s snores, I probably appeared prepared to chomp on the poor animal.
Instructing Lou to stay where she was with the others, I jumped out of the boat and walked slowly towards the sheep. It paused from its grassy meal and looked up at me. Then it returned to eating.
I scratched my head. I’d managed to communicate with the otter. I certainly had no problem when it came to talking to Brutus either, even if he did flatly ignore everything I said. How difficult could a sheep be?
I flicked my index finger, ready to draw the rune, but that first movement made me realise that I wouldn’t be able to manage it. Exhaustion was seeping into my bones and, rather than being sharp and fluid, even the start of the rune felt sluggish. I muttered a curse under my breath and stared at the sheep instead. It just kept on chewing.
I was hardly an expert in the ways of sheep. As far as I could tell, it looked perfectly normal. And getting jumpy simply because it was roaming around the Highlands, where there were probably a million other sheep doing exactly the same thing, was ridiculous. Probably.
I brushed my hand along its back, marvelling at its coarse wool, then sighed and pushed back my hair. I was jumping at shadows.
Lou called out to me as I went back to the boat. ‘What was that about?’
I shrugged. ‘Nothing.’ She looked like she wanted to press me for more so I hastily got back into the boat. ‘Look,’ I said unnecessarily. ‘Our chateau awaits.’
A smile spread across Lou’s face. ‘That has to be record timing.’
I beamed. ‘Yep. And now we can all get some proper rest.’
Famous last words.
I woke up Harriet and Mike while Lou tethered the boat. Naturally they were disorientated for a minute or two but it didn’t take Mike long to realise what had happened. ‘What did you do?’ he yelled, his face going an extraordinary shade of puce.
I twirled a stray curl. I could make something up but it was probably just as easy to tell the truth. ‘You weren’t going to listen to reason. Instead of spending five hours traipsing up a mountain and getting sore and tired, we spent an hour getting here and you’re all rested.’ I wasn’t, of course; I was about dead on my feet but I wasn’t going to tell him that.
‘Unbelievable,’ he muttered. He gestured angrily at the nearest cameraman. ‘She can’t be allowed to get away with this! There are rules!’
The cameraman didn’t react. Mike huffed and glared.
‘Complain to your producer later,’ I said. ‘Let’s get inside first.’
Harriet, who hadn’t said a word since she’d woken up but who was evidently upset, pulled herself out of the boat and walked up to the hut. She rattled the doorknob. ‘It’s locked,’ she informed us flatly.
Mike growled. ‘Let me try.’ He joined her, shoving all his weight against the door. It wasn’t going to budge.
‘There’s something here,’ Lou called over. She held up an envelope. My heart sank. Great. This would be the supposedly inspired Enchantment twist.
Ripping open the envelope, Lou began to read. ‘Congratulations. You have found shelter. The problem is that you can’t gain access to it until you master the entrance spell. This chalet is warded against intruders. It’s up to you and your team to find a way in and complete your first task.’