Chapter One CHAPTER ONE
STELLA STARFLAKE PEARL DECIDED she did not like the courthouse in Coldgate one bit.
Not only was it a looming, imposing, ugly building, with high ceilings, paintings of serious-looking, disapproving judges, and stone statues of justice griffins everywhere, but the people who worked there were stiff and serious and seemed to have their collars buttoned up too tight. Perhaps that’s why the staff all had that sweating, slightly throttled look—including the panel sitting behind the bench.
The panel consisted of the Polar Bear Explorers’ Club’s president, Algernon Augustus Fogg, along with three other retired explorers. They were all men, gray-haired, with disapproving expressions that caused their mustaches to bristle from time to time. They all stared down accusingly at Stella’s father, Felix, who stood alone before them, dressed in his pale blue explorer’s cloak.
The courthouse was normally used for putting criminals on trial, but the members of the Polar Bear Explorers’ Club were allowed to use it for occasions like this, when one of their own was under investigation for rule breaking. Felix had, unfortunately, broken quite a few rules recently when he mounted an unauthorized expedition to Witch Mountain. And Stella and her junior explorer friends—Shay, Ethan, and Beanie—had done the same when they followed him in case he needed rescuing.
It was now three weeks since they had returned from their fateful expedition and all the trouble had started. Felix and Stella had both found that their very membership in the club hung in the balance. They had found themselves on trial for rule breaking, and now their very membership in the club hung in the balance. After two visits to the courthouse, last week they had received a telegram informing them this would be the final meeting and that a decision would be reached by the end of the day. Stella saw that everyone had come to see the result, including the president of the Jungle Cat Explorers’ Club and his odious son, Gideon Galahad Smythe. Shay, Ethan, and Beanie were there too, along with Beanie’s mum, Joss, a slender elf with long blue hair and pointed ears.
Stella was shocked to see her friends. Today was Beanie’s birthday, and he had been planning his party for ages. When Stella found out they were due to appear in court, she’d sent a messenger fairy with a note saying she couldn’t come. She had assumed the party would go ahead without her, yet here they all were in this horrible place instead.
This was the third time she and Felix had been to the courthouse now, and it seemed to Stella that it had been specially designed to make her feel insignificant and small. The very air—thick with a long history of disagreements and arguments and misery and grievances—made Stella feel all twitchy and itchy inside her clothes. Most of all, she hated the fact that they were treating Felix like some kind of criminal. It was so unspeakably unfair. Yes, he may have broken a few rules, and he may have gone to Witch Mountain against the wishes of the Polar Bear Explorers’ Club, but it had all been a matter of life and death, and any explorer ought to be able to understand that.
Stella adjusted her position on the chair and tried to persuade Mustafah, Hermina, Humphrey, and Harriet to settle down in her lap. Unbeknown to her, the four jungle fairies she’d met on their last adventure had stowed away in her pockets when they left home, and she was quite concerned they might get into mischief. She’d already caught Hermina with her slingshot out, aiming a stink-berry at one of the brooding stone griffins adorning the walls.
The other people in the courthouse kept throwing disapproving looks at them too—the jungle fairies kind of stood out with their green skin, leaf tunics, and impressive blue spiky hair. And while there wasn’t a rule against fairies being inside the courthouse as such, it was certainly the case that the building had a dry, life-sucking air—probably on account of all the lawyers—and that it felt somehow wrong for something as magical and marvelous as a fairy to be there.
Shay, the wolf whisperer, caught Stella’s eye and waved at her from across the aisle. It was warm and stuffy inside the courtroom, and yet Shay was still wearing his cloak and seemed to clutch it to him, as if in need of the warmth. Stella raised her hand back, trying not to show her stab of unease at the sight of the white streak in Shay’s hair. Had it spread a little more since she’d last seen him, or was it her imagination? Either way, there was no time to lose.
Koa, Shay’s shadow wolf, had been bitten by a witch wolf just as they were leaving Witch Mountain, and Shay would almost certainly turn into a witch wolf himself if they didn’t do something to help him. But they had tried everything they could, with no success. The only possible chance to save Shay was to travel over the cursed Black Ice Bridge—a forsaken place that no explorer had ever managed to cross. Somewhere on the other side was a mysterious person called the Collector, who had stolen Stella’s birth mother’s Book of Frost, which contained a spell that might save Shay’s life. But it was a formidable task—most said impossible—and they ought to be finishing their preparations for it, not stuck in this stupid courtroom wasting their time. Stella couldn’t help gritting her teeth in frustration.
“You knew the club did not want you to go to Witch Mountain,” one of the old explorers on the panel was saying to Felix. “And yet you went anyway.”
“Is that a question, Nathaniel?” Felix asked mildly.
“This is your final chance to offer some explanation or justification for your behavior,” the explorer replied.
“There are some things in this world that are even more important than the Polar Bear Explorers’ Club,” Felix replied. “As I have already told this court, I went to Witch Mountain because I believed there was a witch there who meant my daughter harm. I feared for her life.”
President Fogg’s mouth formed a thin, straight line, but he shuffled some papers around on the bench in front of him, peered down at the top sheet, then looked back at Felix and said, “You have taken full responsibility for your adopted daughter—the ice princess known as Stella Starflake Pearl—and you do not deny that she broke into the Polar Bear Explorers’ Club and stole a valuable artifact—”
“I deny both those points, sir,” Felix interrupted sharply. “As a junior member of the club, Stella should never have been denied access in the first place. Furthermore, the artifact she took was a tiara that belonged to her and was only on loan to the club temporarily. It’s not possible to steal your own property—”
“What about my dirigible?” cried a voice from the other side of the courtroom. Stella turned and saw that the speaker was Wendell Winterton Smythe, the president of the Jungle Cat Explorers’ Club. “You’re not going to argue that belonged to the girl too? And what about my son? He was magically assaulted.”
“I’m the one who assaulted him!” Stella’s friend Ethan Edward Rook rose to his feet, scowling. His black Ocean Squid Explorers’ Club cloak gleamed beneath the sickly glow of the courthouse lights. “It wasn’t Stella; it was me. And I’d do it again too. In a heartbeat!”
Unfortunately, Gideon Galahad Smythe had been on board the dirigible when the young explorers had used it to flee from the guards at the Polar Bear Explorers’ Club. He was a few years older than them, and very handsome, rude, and mean. To their dismay, he had tried to sabotage their rescue attempt by turning the dirigible back around. So Ethan had used his powers as a magician to transform him into a wonky squish-squish frog, and he’d spent most of the expedition stuffed inside someone’s pocket.
Stella knew that Ethan had not really acted properly there. He should have turned Gideon back into a boy the moment they arrived at Witch Mountain, but the magician claimed to have forgotten the spell. The others had all known deep down that this wasn’t true, but no one had tried very hard to persuade him to turn Gideon back because they had evil witches to worry about, and vampire trolls and ice spiders, and no one particularly wanted to listen to him complaining while they attempted to scale the mountain.
Stella could still see the pure hatred that had blazed in Gideon’s eyes as he’d glared up at Ethan from where he lay sprawled on the salted planks of the pier after they got home and he was human once again.
I’ll get you back, he’d said. One day, I swear I’ll get you back for what you did to me.
And now here he was, making life difficult for them. If Gideon hadn’t been so furious about the whole thing, perhaps the president of the Jungle Cat Explorers’ Club might not have made such noisy complaints and this might all be going very differently now.
Gideon stood up from his chair, completely ignored Ethan, and addressed the judge instead. “The magician had nothing to do with it,” he said. “He’s just trying to take the blame for the ice princess. No doubt she’s bewitched him somehow.” He pointed at Stella. “She’s the one who attacked me.”
“I can’t turn anyone into a frog!” Stella exclaimed. “I can only use ice magic—”
“Who knows what the girl can and cannot do?” President Smythe said. “We hardly know anything about ice princesses. Except for the fact that they’re dangerous.”
“Your son is a filthy liar!” Ethan exclaimed.
An annoyed ripple went around the courtroom at that, and Stella saw Beanie’s mum pull Ethan back into his seat and urgently whisper something in his ear.
“I tell you, it was her!” Gideon insisted.
Stella didn’t know how to make them listen. She’d already been through everything that had happened at earlier meetings. No one seemed to want to hear anything she had to say.
President Fogg picked up his gavel and hammered it down briskly. “Silence!” he cried. “There will be no more of these outbursts, or I will have the room cleared.” He turned his gaze on Felix and said, “There can be no excuse for stealing President Smythe’s dirigible. None. Not only was it stolen, but it was also lost during the course of the expedition. The craft was hand-carved by Tikki nymphs from the Tikki Zikki River. It was invaluable.”
Stella flinched. Upon arriving at Witch Mountain, they had traded the dirigible at Weenus’s Trading Post. It had seemed vital at the time to have a camel and a magic fort blanket for the expedition that lay ahead, but now she was starting to think that perhaps they ought to have made more of an effort to bring the dirigible back with them. She had been so focused on rescuing Felix that she’d barely given it a moment’s thought.
“I accept that Stella took the dirigible,” Felix was saying, “but precedent states that when another explorer’s life is at stake, in an emergency situation it is permissible to—”
“Thank you, Pearl, but we do not require a law lecture,” President Fogg snapped. “We are here merely to summarize the facts and to give our decision.” He set down his gavel and drew himself up a little straighter in his chair. “When I admitted this girl into our club—against my better judgment, I might add—you told me you would take full responsibility for her. She has committed countless infractions and breaches of the rules. Countless. She has led other junior explorers astray.” His gaze flickered toward Beanie, Shay, and Ethan, who all got to their feet and started to protest together. President Fogg didn’t even pause for breath—he merely raised his voice and steamrolled over their explanations. “As a result, there has been an official complaint from the Jungle Cat Explorers’ Club, and you have left me no choice but to take action. Both you and the girl are to be expelled from the Polar Bear Explorers’ Club.”
The others all stopped talking, and for a moment there was stunned silence. Stella felt like her chest might burst with the unfairness and wrongness of it. She remembered Felix’s words to her just before her very first expedition:
If anything goes wrong with the expedition as a result, I will certainly lose my membership in the Polar Bear Explorers’ Club.…
She had promised him that wouldn’t happen. She knew how much the club meant to him—she knew that exploring was Felix’s whole life. The other people in the room were exclaiming around her—some in outrage and some in satisfaction.
“Your cloak, sir,” President Fogg said in a cold voice. “You have lost the right to wear it. I must also ask that you hand in your explorer’s bag and card at the confiscation desk before leaving the courthouse.”
Stella saw Felix’s fingers shake slightly as he fumbled with the clasp, and before she knew what she was doing she was on her feet, scattering the fairies, who tumbled to the floor in an indignant heap.
“No!” Her voice rang out across the courtroom, and everyone turned to stare at her. “No!” she said again. “This isn’t right! I was the one who stole the dirigible. I was the one who broke into the club. Felix only went to Witch Mountain because of me. It isn’t fair to punish him for something I did!”
“You do not get to decide what is fair,” President Fogg said sternly. “In fact, you have no say in this courtroom at all.”
Stella knew it was hopeless to try to make the panel see reason when they were all so clearly determined not to. For a wild moment, her fingers strayed to the charm bracelet at her wrist. When Felix had finally found the witch he had set after, she had turned out to be Stella’s old nanny, Jezzybella, and he realized it had all been a big misunderstanding; she had never meant Stella any harm. When they were reunited, Jezzybella had given Stella the charm bracelet. She’d even come home with them and told Stella that each charm on the bracelet created a different spell. Perhaps she could use one now to fight against the panel somehow.
“Stella,” Felix said quietly, his voice full of warning.
She looked at him, and he shook his head just slightly before his eyes flicked over to where Shay stood. Stella felt her anger drain away uselessly. She knew what Felix was saying—she had to stay out of trouble because she was the only one who had any hope of saving Shay’s life. If they managed to cross the Black Ice Bridge and if they found the Collector and if they managed to steal the Book of Frost, then Stella was the only person who would be able to use the ice-melting spell to counteract the witch wolf’s bite.
“I do not regret a single one of my actions, and I will gladly give up my membership if that is the price,” Felix said calmly as he carefully folded the cloak and placed it on a nearby table.
“That’s so typical of you, Pearl!” one of the retired explorers on the panel said with a sneer. “If you ask me, the Polar Bear Explorers’ Club is better off without mavericks like you. You damage the integrity of the club, attack our traditions, and make a mockery of our history.”
Stella knew this explorer. His name was Quentin Bodwin Moore, and he was a fairyologist like Felix, only Quentin favored things like pinned fairy displays and killing jars. He’d been furious when Felix had persuaded the Polar Bear Explorers’ Club to remove their pinned fairy display and had nursed a vendetta against Felix ever since.
“Let me be quite clear,” Felix said. “I have nothing but the utmost respect for the Polar Bear Explorers’ Club. For all the exploring clubs, in fact. But sometimes it is surely desirable that we rethink the attitudes of our past and adapt with the times—”
“What nonsense!” Quentin exclaimed. “Perhaps without you putting stupid ideas in people’s heads we will be able to bring back the pinned fairy display that stood in our lobby for more than a hundred years!”
“Perhaps you will, Quentin,” Felix replied with a sigh, and Stella didn’t think she had ever heard him sound quite so sad or so tired.
Before anyone else could say another word, however, Mustafah flew up into the air, slingshot already in hand. Stella saw what he was about to do, but before she could even think about whether she wanted to stop him or not, he drew back the elastic band, took aim, and fired a stink-berry straight at Quentin. Stella supposed the jungle fairy was a little peeved at the suggestion that a pinned fairy display should be reintroduced into the club, and she couldn’t really blame him.
Even so, a tiny fairy catapulting a stink-berry at a member of the panel was perhaps not the most helpful thing that could have happened at that moment. The red berry shot straight across the room and hit the explorer on the cheek, where it burst and let loose a vile smell. It’s hard to describe a stink-berry stench to someone who has never actually smelled it, but it’s a bit like polar bear poo, walrus breath, and camel vomit all rolled into one, with a sprinkling of unwashed feet and cheese that has moldy bits growing on it. It filled the entire courtroom and immediately sent everyone heaving and rising to their feet, tripping over one another as they raced toward the exit.