Over the next few weeks, Alexandra exchanged more letters with her friends. On a whim, she sent postcards to the students c/o the Pruett School, telling them she was alive and free. To her surprise, several wrote back. Chris Naylor told her the school was much more boring without her, and wrote a long list of questions about Eerie Island, Boggarts, what it felt like being Polyjuiced into Mr. Brown, and how to talk to girls. Freddy DiStefano wrote a long and surprisingly thoughtful letter, admitting that he almost dropped out after the incident with Mr. Brown, and that he wasn't sure he wanted to stay in the wizarding world. He reported that Rachel Cohen, Silvia McCarthy, and Penny Oscar had quit, and the Denning twins said they were arguing with their parents weekly about staying.
Helen Xanthopoulos sent Alexandra a package by Owl Post. It was a potions handbook called Quirrel's Quick Potions Guide.
"I bought this from our store with my allowance," Helen wrote. "I hope it is still useful for you. We miss you and I'm sorry you went to wizard prison and Mr. Brown was terrible. That wasn't fair."
Alexandra laughed ruefully, and sent Helen a heartfelt thank-you note.
After her first week in the Ozarks, when no Special Inquisitors arrived to haul her back to Central Territory, Alexandra began to feel a little less paranoid, though she still kept her hickory and yew wands constantly within easy reach, even when she was in the outhouse or taking a bath. Accepting that at least temporarily she had a safe refuge, she was faced with the question of what she was meant to do with her time. She still felt a strong conviction that she needed to visit Storm King Mountain, though the means to get there, let alone get inside, were beyond her. In the meantime, she practiced spells, studied from her books, and did chores for Granny Mahnkey.
Granny Mahnkey was never satisfied with the way Alexandra performed even the simplest of tasks. She was finally allowed to use magic, but the scouring charms and levitation spells she'd learned at Charmbridge were "noisy 'n full'er fuss," and Granny Mahnkey made her dust and clean and patch holes in the roof while standing in place, invoking cleaning and mending charms wordlessly. Alexandra found this difficult and pointless; it went against all the lessons she'd learned in Charms and Transfigurations. She knew it was possible to cast spells non-verbally — she had done it herself occasionally — but it was like trying to climb a ladder wearing skis. Granny Mahnkey made it even harder by forbidding her to wave her wand around.
Alexandra climbed up on the roof to recast waterproofing charms. She learned to animate brooms and feather-dusters. She learned a bit of sewing, mostly the old-fashioned way without the assistance of magic thread or charmed needles. Granny Mahnkey also tried to teach her to cook, before declaring her "purely hopeless" beyond the most rudimentary tasks, like boiling water and peeling potatoes. At least this Alexandra was allowed to do with her wand, as long as she was quiet and kept still while doing it.
Granny Mahnkey was not impressed when Alexandra blamed the burned water on her yew wand.
Besides household chores, Alexandra was sent on numerous errands, fetching tea and chocolate and yarn and butter churns from other Grannies.
"Why don't you just Apparate?" she asked Granny Mahnkey. "You're a witch! Why do you do everything the hard way?"
The old woman smiled. "That's why we'uns keep young gals about, for fetchin' 'n carryin'."
Alexandra learned more about the topography of the Hollers, as the Grannies were scattered widely between them. Most of the Grannies lived like Granny Mahnkey, in cabins and cottages by themselves, but two lived with their extended families. When Alexandra descended out of the sky on her foreign broom, wearing boots and a barely-decent dress, with her hair straying from beneath her half-tied bonnet, her hosts were hospitable enough and never failed to offer her refreshments, but children were sent to do chores or work on their "grammars" rather than stare at the strange visitor. Ozarker girls covered their mouths — in shock or amusement, Alexandra could not tell which — and Ozarker boys squinted at her, contemptuous and fascinated. She felt like a strange weed that had erupted in their yards.
Everyone was civil. The Grannies would tell her tidbits of meaningless gossip and give her something else to carry to the next family over, or ask what the weather was like on the other side of the mountain, as she'd been "waftin' about takin' in the breeze like a wild gull."
Alexandra realized that the errands were meant to keep her busy and out of the way when the Grannies wanted to talk. Often she would return from one Granny's house to find Granny Mahnkey in animated conversation with another. Alexandra didn't believe for a second that they'd been talking about the weather and Granny Mahnkey's lovely new rocker embroidery. Once she heard a "pop" as she left Granny Mahnkey's house to borrow some wand wax from Granny Goodman, and turned to see Granny Ford entering the cabin.
The Grannies were talking around and about her, and Alexandra knew little about what was going on in the outside world, or even here in the Hollers.
Letters arrived from Anna and the Pritchards, and then from Julia and Livia. All of them reassured her that they were doing what they could. Julia hinted that Alexandra should sneak her way to Croatoa and live with the Kings, but even Julia had to realize how infeasible that was. It would be the first place the Office of Special Inquisitions would expect Alexandra to go.
She began taking longer on her little errands. Granny Mahnkey didn't seem to mind, or notice, when Alexandra went out to fetch a salt shaker and didn't return until evening. She roamed all over the Hollers, and sometimes into the deep, dark woods. With her broom and her magical boots, she could cross ravines no Muggle hiker could reach, or land in black and rotting swamps that were only steps from a highway, but leagues and centuries away once she was past the tree line. She had the sense here in these wild patches that still filled the spaces on the map between the ever-expanding zones of Muggle habitation that the Ozarks were a timeless and untouched place. Sometimes she felt eyes on her from deep in the woods. She was never able to spot her unseen watcher, even with Charlie's help, but brandishing her wand always made it go away.
The Ozarks were beautiful and wild and inhospitable and scary. Alexandra began to appreciate how the Ozarkers might want to keep it that way. She could lose herself for hours in the untamed wilds hiding between homesteads and highways. Then a truck horn or the distant thunder of a jetliner would stir her and remind her that even in the deepest Hollers, the Ozarkers couldn't completely escape the Muggle world.
She sympathized with them, seeing how they valued their isolation and their pristine Hollers, but she didn't see how they could expect to stay untouched forever.
It grew colder. In the winter the Ozarks were covered in bitter frost, and Alexandra continued running around the Hollers on errands. Warming Charms kept her from freezing on her broom, but sometimes she stayed on the ground. In her Seven-League Boots, she could run sure-footed even through snow and ice.
In mid-December, Granny Mahnkey sent Alexandra to the Markle farm, which lay in Furthest Holler, across the river and on the other side of a forest from the Pritchards' homestead.
It was the first time Alexandra had set foot in Furthest since returning to the Ozarks. With Constance, Forbearance, and Innocence still at Charmbridge, she saw little reason to visit the Pritchards, though she knew the real reason she avoided their Holler.
The Markles were to give Alexandra a box, which she was to bring back to Granny Mahnkey. Granny Mahnkey had strictly enjoined her against opening it.
The Markles were polite and hospitable, like most Ozarkers. They offered her coffee and a piece of persimmon pie, and then hurried her out the door before any of their children could engage her in conversation.
With the Markle farm about a quarter of a mile behind her, Alexandra set the box down and inspected it with scrying charms and her Witch's Sight. There were no charms on it, and it wasn't even locked. She stood there contemplating it, her chin resting on her fist, wondering why Granny Mahnkey would set such an obvious trap for her. What sort of test was this? A test of her curiosity or her honesty? Maybe her willpower? The box probably contained nothing more than coffee or persimmons.
She had nearly resolved not to open it, just to spite the Granny and her expectations, when she heard a chopping sound, followed by the crack of a tree snapping and falling.
Curious, she picked up the box and walked through the icy woods until she came across a wooden palisade surrounding a compound of low-roofed log cabins. Through the open gates of the palisade, she saw dwarves pushing wheelbarrows and dragging sleds piled high with stacked cordwood.
To her left, the chopping sound echoed through the trees again, this time from much closer. It was followed by the crack of wood splitting, and then a series of snapping, rustling sounds and a crash. Alexandra followed the sound and found a pair of Ozarker men, dressed in winter coats and familiar wide-brimmed hats, standing over a large, fallen tree.
Alexandra walked closer as one of them yelled, "Diffindo!" and waved his wand. A Severing Charm sliced all the way through the trunk of the tree.
"One Charm, one cut," said Noah Pritchard.
"Tadwork!" scoffed Burton Pritchard. He raised his wand and said in a sonorous voice, "Diffindo!" making three quick gestures. In rapid succession, the trunk was chopped into three more segments. "You know hain't no one in the Five Hollers whose Severin' Charm's a match for mine!"
Alexandra clapped her hands together slowly, with the box tucked under one arm. Noah and Burton looked up. Noah pushed his hat back and stared at Alexandra much the way the Markles had. Burton's eyebrows went up, and then a grin spread across his face.
"Miss Quick," said Noah. "I din't 'spect to see you hereabouts."
"We'uns heard you was about," said Burton. "I wondered if you'd come callin'."
He said this in a polite way, without any innuendo that Alexandra could detect, and when she glanced at Noah, he just continued to stare at her, nonplussed, with no knowing winks or smirks exchanged with his brother.
"I've been busy," she said, not entirely truthfully.
"Heard that too," Burton said.
"What else have you heard?" she asked.
"That you is a rucksome outlaw an' a fugitive, on the gallows path, an' up to more deviltry an' trouble than could be credited to one gal," said Noah.
"Troublesome!" said Charlie from a nearby branch.
"Also heard you is perambulatin' 'bout on Granny business," said Burton. "Now that can't be true, can it? The Grannies is known to occasionally take under their wings a maid who's got no mind for marriage, if she's fearsome powerful in some witchy way, but…"
"I'm pretty sure making me a Granny isn't what they have in mind," Alexandra said. She could not resist adding, "And I don't think I qualify."
Burton put the back of his hand to his mouth and coughed, turning away from Noah, who just nodded. "'Course not. A furriner as a Granny? What plumb nonsense." He looked at Burton, then back at Alexandra. "What're you doin' here, Miss Quick?"
"What are you doing?" she asked. "What's with the dwarves back there?"
"Ah, they'uns been buildin' settlements here in the Hollers since they'uns lost their homes, and we'uns are choppin' wood for 'em, to be neighborly. They'uns need a lavish o' fuel for their forges."
As he spoke, a pair of dwarves came trudging through the light snow toward them, pulling an empty sled.
"We'uns get along purty civil," said Burton. "But they'uns don't talk much, even to say thankee." He raised his voice at this, as the dwarves drew near. They both looked at him sourly but said nothing, just began stacking the wood Noah and Burton had chopped. Then one looked Alexandra's way, and dropped his armload of wood.
"You!" he cried.
"Asshole!" Alexandra said, and drew her wand.
"Asshole!" Charlie repeated from the branches, and the other dwarf dropped his wood as well.
"Merlin an' Arthur!" Noah exclaimed. "Wash yore mouth, what's wrong with you, girl?"
The dwarf glaring at Alexandra was wrapped in furs and heavy scarves, but his face and hands, where they were visible, were pink and scarred.
"Murderous witch!" he cried. "The angry witch, the slaying witch, the raven-haired ravager! Promised you hospitality and safety from such as she!" This last was addressed to the befuddled Pritchards.
"How are Nasty and Grabby and the rest of your creepy buddies?" Alexandra asked. "Still ambushing hikers and threatening to cook them?"
"Ask you so you can inflict more terrible retribution?" Asshole demanded. "Strike me down will you now, terror and trouble, as failed you before to kill us all?"
"If I'd wanted to kill you, you'd be dead, you stabby sadistic little shit!" Alexandra said.
"Alex!" said Burton, sounding genuinely shocked. Alexandra looked at him sharply, but Noah didn't seem to notice the sudden familiarity.
Asshole held up his hands. "In the ruins of our halls, set on fire was I, left for dead like so many of my kin! Reaver and ruiner, smasher and slaughterer!"
"Mugger, molester, and would-be murderer!" Alexandra retorted.
"Miss Quick!" Noah thundered. "An' you, Mister Dwarf! What's this about?"
"He's one of the seven dwarves who jumped me on my Quest," Alexandra said. "They hit me over the head, tied me up, dragged me underground, put their grabby little hands all over me, stole my stuff, and were going to feed me to the jimplicute!"
Noah and Burton's mouths dropped open, but Asshole raised his scarred fists and shook them at Alexandra. "Is she the reason dwell we now in hovels of wood instead of halls of stone! Refugees and beggars are we now because of her!"
"You! Threatened! To! Eat! Me!" Alexandra punctuated each word with a jab of her wand. The pieces of wood at the dwarves' feet began to smoke. "And Charlie!"
"Asshole!" said Charlie.
"We do not eat Beings," said the dwarf with Asshole, who had until now been silent.
"Tell that to this asshole!" Alexandra jabbed her wand in Asshole's direction again. His hat went flying off his head in a burst of flames. The dwarf screeched and dropped to the ground, cringing.
"STOP THAT!" Noah bellowed. "Miss Quick, reg'late yoreself or I'll relieve you of yore wand! You will not abuse Ozarker hospitality, whatever grievance you got with the hill-folk an' however unmannerly they'uns might be!"
Alexandra was breathing rapidly. She glared at Noah, and almost dared him to try relieving her of her wand, but the expressions on the Pritchards' faces, and his words about Ozarker hospitality, put a damper on her fury. Shaking, she lowered her wand.
"Miss Quick," said Noah, "the hill-folk been tellin' tales 'bout a witch who destroyed their mountain, but we din't hardly credit it."
"Never believe us do wizard-folk!" said Asshole, slapping his hat against the snow.
"I knowed you was there on that Quest foolishness the Grannies sent you on," said Burton. "But you couldn't possibly bring down an entire mountain."
Alexandra said nothing, and continued to glare at Asshole.
Burton cleared his throat. "Um, you din't, right?"
"It's a long story," Alexandra said.
Noah and Burton looked at one another.
"It is true," said Asshole's companion. "Stands before us the earth-shaker and mountain-quaker. She who spilled wrath and fire upon us, and threw us into the harsh daylight. Can we not even rebuild our homes underground, because unleashed you the jimplicute."
"What do you mean, I unleashed it? It was already unleashed!" Alexandra said.
"Oh, Merlin, not this again," Noah groaned.
"Usually does it slumber between Jubilees," said the second dwarf. "But now it stalks us still and preys upon our folk when wizards are not about. Caused you this as well, home-wrecker and lair-despoiler."
"You can't blame the jimplicute on me!" Alexandra protested.
"T'ain't no jimplicute!" said Burton. "It's an old witch's tale we'uns tell tads to scare 'em."
"Are our tads and elders who have disappeared no doubt witch's tales as well," said the dwarf. "For wizards, what see you not happens not."
"Forget tall tales an' hill-folk fabulations," Noah said. "Did you really do what they'uns say you done, Miss Quick? Did dwarves flood into our Hollers 'cause you drove 'em here?"
"They assaulted me!" Alexandra said.
"I did not," said Asshole's companion. "Neither did my wife and babes, on whose heads you tumbled stones."
Asshole still stood cringing at his companion's side, glaring at Alexandra when not glancing nervously at Noah and Burton. But the other dwarf, despite trembling a little, looked steadily and accusingly at her.
Alexandra looked away.
Noah said, "Miss Quick, I reckon maybe you oughter go."
"I'm going," Alexandra said. She leaped seven strides in her Seven-League Boots, almost reaching the edge of the woods, and from there she ran back to Granny Mahnkey's cabin, fleeing the glowering, accusatory dwarves and the judgmental looks on Burton and Noah's faces.
Usually Alexandra slept until either Charlie or Granny Mahnkey woke her, but the next morning, she was up well before dawn. Granny Mahnkey came into the kitchen to find Quirrel's Quick Potions Guide open on the table, a fire beneath the kettle on the stove, and another fire lit in the fireplace. Floating in the fireplace was a cauldron Alexandra had dragged out from the cupboard she'd found it in while cleaning and dusting, and now she was mixing ingredients in a bowl with her wand while waiting for the water in the kettle to boil.
Granny Mahnkey took in the jeans and long-sleeved shirt Alexandra was wearing instead of an Ozarker dress. She looked over the ingredients and the book on the table, then sniffed at the steam rising from the cauldron in the fireplace. She turned to face Alexandra, who had just taken the kettle off the stove and was pouring boiling witch-hazel tea into a cup of crushed dragonfly wings and quicksilver.
"I do not recall you askin' permission to appropriate my potion stock," Granny Mahnkey said.
Alexandra eyed her without saying anything, and cast a charm on the concoction in the cup.
Granny Mahnkey frowned. "Alright, girl, I'm piqued. What're you brewin' a Hastenin' potion for?"
"I'm going jimplicute hunting," Alexandra said.
Granny Mahnkey blinked.
Alexandra carried the cup to the cauldron and poured its contents into the brew.
"I don't know where that notion come from, girl, but hain't no one ever seen a jimplicute," said Granny Mahnkey.
"I have," Alexandra said.
Granny Mahnkey's frown deepened. "Girl, if'n you are bored and in need of occupation for your time, I can oblige."
"Do you have any chores or errands for me today?" Alexandra asked. "I'll do whatever you want, but then I'm going to hunt the jimplicute."
"An' if I forbid it?" Granny Mahnkey asked.
Alexandra sighed. "Why would you do that? If the jimplicute is mythical, why do you care if I'm just wasting my time?"
Granny Mahnkey gestured at the cauldron. "That's a dangerous draft even when brewed perfect. Don't you know it'll take a year off'n your life with every swallow?"
"Isn't that an old witches' tale?" Alexandra asked. "The book says no one's proven that." Actually, what it said was that no one had ever measured how much it would shorten your lifespan, but it was a restricted potion for a reason.
Granny Mahnkey said, "Do not scoff at old witches' tales."
Granny Mahnkey threw up her hands. "How's this worth a year off'n your life?"
Alexandra's mouth set in a firm line. "Is one year off my life really going to matter?"
Granny Mahnkey stared at her. "You are a grim child." She watched as Alexandra continued her preparations.
"Do you have wolfsbane?" Alexandra asked.
Granny Mahnkey scowled. "You add wolfsbane to a Hastenin' potion, it'll Hasten you 'til your heart bursts."
"I know. It's called a Heartsploder. But you just have to take the antidote." Alexandra flipped the page in her book. "Do you have Calabar beans?"
"No," Granny Mahnkey said. "I can't stop you from chasin' kingdoodle tales, but I won't help you do yourself in."
Alexandra stood still for a moment as if prepared to argue the point, then shrugged and dispelled the fire under the cauldron. She poured the potion into a small bottle, which she attached to her belt with a Sticking Charm.
"You din't answer my question," Granny Mahnkey said. "Why're you suddenly allfired eager to hunt jimplicutes?"
Alexandra said, "Apparently, I didn't quite finish my Quest."
Granny Mahnkey didn't call her back as Alexandra walked out the door into the frozen pre-dawn.
She did not find the jimplicute that day.
She flew on her broom to the mountain where the Ozarkers' Unworked magic was stored. It was now, as the dwarves had told her, smashed and tumbled down, a much smaller mountain with enormous slides of rubble strewn down what had once been steep, rocky slopes. It was more of a massively uneven, jagged hill, too rough and broken to climb over, and from the air, there was little to see but dirt and boulders under a layer of snow.
She landed and ran all around the mountain on foot. The cavern that had once been the entrance to the jimplicute's lair had collapsed with the rest of the mountain. She ran through the woods, stopping frequently to stand still and listen, waiting to feel that sensation of being watched. But as far as she could tell, the only thing watching her was Charlie, flying overhead.
Granny Mahnkey was sitting in a rocking chair holding a very old book with tattered pages when Alexandra returned. The old woman shook her head and tsked as Charlie flew up to a rafter.
"You did not find the jimplicute, I take it?" she said dryly.
"It's out there," Alexandra said. "It's just too fast, and it can smell my wand, and I'm not sure where it is now that I sort of destroyed its lair."
"Like you sorta drove the hill-folk outter their homes and made us 'sponsible for 'em?" Granny Mahnkey asked. "An' you sorta come close to murderin' some blaggard, an' sorta escaped from wizard prison, and the Stars Above know what else you sorta done?"
Alexandra scowled. She suppressed the urge to snap a bitter retort, and instead threw herself into the old worn chair opposite the rocker. She slouched disconsolately, until she noticed the box sitting at Granny Mahnkey's elbow.
She'd been so upset the night before, she'd slammed the box she brought back from the Markles on the table before storming off to her room and forgetting about it. Now she realized the box was about the right size for the book Granny Mahnkey was holding.
Granny Mahnkey noticed her scrutiny and smiled wryly. "I'm right 'stonished you din't open it, to be honest."
"You told me not to," Alexandra said, with exaggerated sincerity. "Wait — how do you know I didn't open it?"
"I'da known. The box was charmed, 'course."
"No it wasn't," Alexandra said immediately.
"Hah!" Granny Mahnkey chuckled. "You wicked child."
Alexandra held her tongue until her curiosity got the better of her, then asked, "So what's so important about that book?"
"It's Ozarker genealogy. Granny Markle kept the record of our family histories. Now it's passed on to me."
"Oh." This was not interesting to her. Alexandra turned her thoughts back to the jimplicute. "Maybe I should set a trap. I could use a Slow Line…"
"Hain't never heard of a Slow Line," said Granny Mahnkey.
"It's from one of my books. It uses magic similar to an Age Line, but —"
"How much good's your book learnin' done you, child? You study them fancy spells, but everythin' you do's still a calamity, even boilin' water. What you need is some mule sense."
Alexandra frowned. Granny Mahnkey's words stung more than she wanted to admit. She tried to ignore them. "I'll need bait."
Granny Mahnkey snorted. "What do jimplicutes eat?"
"I do not feature the hill-folk cooperatin'."
Alexandra knew the old woman was being sarcastic, but she smiled. "Actually, I think they will." A plan began to take shape in her head. "But I'm going to need some extra help."
"Charlie!" said Charlie.
"Not from you, Charlie," Alexandra said. "From the elves."
"Elves?" exclaimed Granny Mahnkey.
"One elf in particular," Alexandra said. And also one Ozarker in particular.
The next day, she trudged through the snow around the mountain where the jimplicute had once laired until she found what she was looking for: a laurel bush, still hardy and flowering despite the cold, with frost clinging to its branches.
She sent Charlie to sit on a nearby branch, and squatted next to the laurel bush, holding her wand before her.
Once, she would have used doggerel verse, but now that she could see the cracks in the world that ran through the Ozarks, and knew that one led directly to the place beneath the mountain that the elves guarded, she reached out and tugged, making it ripple. She wasn't entirely sure of the effect it would have, but she used a light touch, hoping that it would get the elves' attention.
The snow around her and the laurel bush melted instantly.
"Sees-From-Laurel, can you hear me?" she said. "It is I, Alexandra Quick." She touched the tip of her wand to the laurel bush. "I, Troublesome."
"Troublesome!" repeated Charlie, cawing from the tree behind her.
The laurel blossoms brightened until they were almost fluorescent. Then two of them blinked at her.
"Troublesome," said Sees-From-Laurel, his mouth the rustling of laurel leaves and his arms the branches, which were now as green and leafy as if it were springtime. "You have done us an injustice."
"How did I do you an injustice?" she asked.
"You drove the dwarves out of the mountain, buried the way to the World Away, and left us trapped within," he said.
"I thought you wanted the dwarves out."
"We wanted out! Now the way is buried beneath rocks and stone. How will the Ozarkers ever go the World Away?"
"Maybe the dwarves can help with that," Alexandra said.
Sees-From-Laurel's eyes were bright and unfriendly in the glow of the magically rejuvenated bush. "Why would the smelly tribe of diggers help either us or the Ozarkers?"
"I guess you're not aware of what's going on up here," Alexandra said. "It seems the dwarves still have a jimplicute problem."
"Ah. You did an injustice to them too."
"Maybe." Alexandra meant to sound sarcastic, but then she looked down involuntarily, twirling her wand and watching sparks spin off it. "Anyway, if I'm going to fix this, I need your help."
"The last time we helped you, it did not go as planned."
"Yeah, well, let's be honest, your plans weren't exactly in my best interest either. But I think you'll like this plan."
"Why?" asked Sees-From-Laurel.
"Because there's no risk for you, only for me. If it works, we get rid of the jimplicute and the dwarves can return to the mountain."
"And if it does not work?"
Alexandra raised her head to look at the elf again. "Then I guess you'll have a kind of justice."