The next day didn’t start off any better, as far as Melena was concerned. She didn’t feel remotely well rested and from the dark circles under Toad’s eyes, she wasn’t the only one.
“I’d like you to tell me the truth.”
Toad looked up from his bowl of congealed porridge and shriveled blackberries.
“Truth about what?” he asked.
“The truth about last night!” said Melena. “You said you were Jack’s number one and turns out he kicked you —”
“I wasn’t —” Toad began hotly.
“Toad, don’t bother lying to me. Why would that smelly gorilla say those things if they weren’t true?”
Toad chewed his bottom lip. It looked angry and swollen but was no longer bleeding. Melena wondered if there was any murtlap around. She could use the sap for his lip, though it wouldn’t do anything for the sickly bruise on his cheek.
She watched him shift uncomfortably, still picking at his porridge.
“Jack … Jack tossed me out ’cuz …” he took a great shuddering breath as if this was costing him something terrible, “’cuz I ain’t … I ain’t any good at stealing. There. Satisfied?”
“What are you talking about?” said Melena, bewildered. “You stole our breakfast.”
“Food’s different. I’ve always been able to steal food.” He sounded thoroughly miserable about it. “Whenever I try to steal something important, I make a mess of it.”
“Like at the apothecary?” Melena asked. He certainly hadn’t made any attempts to be quiet then.
“Nah, I’ve done worse,” Toad admitted. “Loads worse. The final straw was when I got Lynch caught and thrown in jail. That was too much for Jack. Doesn’t matter that Lynch probably got out two days later,” he added bitterly.
“Why do you say that?”
“Because Lynch can pick any lock,” said Toad. “He probably took a nice long nap before picking his way out.”
Melena didn’t know what to say to that.
“So,” said Toad, hitching a grin back onto his face with difficulty, “fancy finding that unicorn?”
After forcing down what they could of their uninspired breakfast Melena and Hazel headed out, but Toad, saying he’d forgotten something, dashed back inside the inn. What he could have forgotten, Melena had no idea.
“Got it!” he gasped, rushing past the foul-tempered owner back to Melena.
“I don’t see anything,” said Melena, looking him over.
“Which way’s Holly-Harp, eh?” asked Toad, so brightly that Melena narrowed her eyes suspiciously.
“This way, I think,” she said slowly. He bounded forward and walked at such a jaunty pace that Melena wanted to laugh. Hazel clambered up Melena’s back and curled around her shoulders, like a green collar to a fancy coat.
When the inn was out of sight, Toad dug inside his coat and pulled out a large wedge of cheese.
“That crone was keeping the good stuff! Had this hoarded away in her pantry, along with these goodies.”
In his pockets Toad had stashed away another smaller (and far more pungent) block of cheese, three cured salami, a hefty bag of nuts and dried fruit, one loaf of seedy bread, and a fat jar of jam.
“Serves us the nasty wolf eel and keeps the fine dining to herself,” said Toad, closing his coat.
“How did you know she had all of that?” asked Melena, torn between amazement and frustration, watching him break off a great chunk of cheese.
“People always have some stuff packed away,” Toad shrugged. “Want some?” he offered, holding out the wedge.
Melena’s stomach grumbled. The meager breakfast had barely tided her over and she had hardly eaten anything since she’d left the Bells. It wouldn’t do if she starved. She took the cheese and shared it with Hazel.
“Don’t you think she’ll notice it’s gone?” asked Melena, shooting a wary glance over her shoulder, though the inn was far out of sight.
“Yep,” said Toad.
“You should have taken some of my money to give her for the food,” said Melena. “Next time we will.”
Toad rolled his eyes.
“That ain’t how a thief operates, Melena. If I paid for stuff then that wouldn’t be stealing anymore.”
“Exactly,” said Melena happily.
Toad shook his head in exasperation. “You just don’t get it.”
Instead of replying, Melena chose to stop and ask a passing girl with a flock of geese where Holly-Harp Wood was. The girl looked a bit taken aback, but pointed to the east.
“This road will take you straight to it,” she told them. “But I wouldn’t go in there, if I were you. It’s easy to get lost in Holly-Harp.”
Melena kept her smile polite as she and Toad stepped around the geese.
“Thank you,” she said, but the girl’s frown did not lessen.
They didn’t come across any more goose girls warning them with disapproving looks, though two more buggies had them shifting from the road, making Toad grumble each time Melena refused point blank to ‘hijack’ another one.
“I’m sure the forest is close,” she said firmly.
“We’d already be there if you weren’t such a —”
Another buggy zinged by, showering them both in dust.
The road had split and Melena felt a creeping sense of trepidation as she stared at the one that wound into Holly-Harp Wood, darkened with shade and shadow, overgrown and wild. She looked to the left where the main road continued on in the bright sunlight, wildflowers bending in a breeze. But there was no need to worry, she assured herself. As long as they didn’t wander too far from the road, they would be fine.
Melena thought she had seen large trees in the East Hickory Park, but as she stared wide-eyed at the towering oaks with their thick, serpentine branches crisscrossing overhead, she had to admit that Hickory’s park was laughable. Tongues of fern cascaded from the banks on either side of the road, sunken low from years of passing wagon wheels, perhaps from villagers seeking game and firewood. Holly-Harp Wood felt immense and ancient.
“So,” said Toad, craning his neck as far back as he could to look into the dappled canopy, “how do we track down a unicorn?”
“Well,” said Melena, “they are very illusive creatures, but according to my potions book unicorns particularly enjoy the company of blue-wing fairies.”
Melena nodded. “I think that if we find the fairies and stick with them, a unicorn might come to us.”
“So now we’ve gotta find fairies? Great. Where are they?”
“They’re a type of water nymph, so look for a creek or stream. Some source of water.”
They set off, sticking to the sunken road, keeping an eye on the sloping, uneven ground for roots, their ears trained for the sound of a bubbling brook. On they went, deeper into the forest. After a short break for lunch they came upon their first stream. It came just in sight of the road before curving off, disappearing from view into the deep green of the wood.
They looked at each other. Melena didn’t like the idea of leaving the road, but there was very little choice in the matter.
If it had been dark on the road with the thick canopy, it was nothing to the gloom that settled over them now; Melena half suspected it had become night, but Toad, fishing out a scratched pocket watch told her otherwise. They followed the stream until they came upon what Melena thought was a promising spot. If she was a fairy, she would certainly find the bank, spongy with moss and sporting orange toadstools, appealing.
“Let’s wait here,” said Melena.
They settled a short distance away, partially hidden by ferns. At once, Hazel raced up a tree and disappeared with a jostling of leaves.
“D’you see any fairies?” asked Toad, craning his neck to get a better view.
Melena shook her head. “Not yet.”
Unfortunately, ‘not yet’ stretched on for an unbelievable amount of time, but they both tried valiantly to ignore the fact that no fairies and no unicorns had appeared at their little stretch of water. They were both entertained by Hazel who scampered overhead, chasing squirrels, but even watching Hazel harass the wildlife grew stale. As afternoon neared evening, and the little light in the forest dimmed, tempers grew strained.
“We should look for another creek.”
“No. We should stick with the one we’ve found. Fairies have to get thirsty eventually.”
“We’ve been here all day!” Toad raged. “This is ridiculous. We should walk around the forest. Not sit here like dolts waiting for them to come to us.”
“And get lost?” Melena shot back. “This might be the only creek there is —”
“Are you kidding me? This forest is huge! There must be hundreds of streams —”
“I don’t want to get too far away from the road! We’ll get lost!”
Toad gripped his hair and expelled a furious oath. “It’s gonna get dark soon,” he pointed out. “What are we gonna do then?”
As if Holly-Harp had been waiting for this question, a spine-tingling howl swept over them. At once, Melena and Toad sprang to their feet, desires of staying hidden from passing fairies vanishing on the spot. Hazel scrambled down her tree and wound herself tightly around Melena’s ankles.
“What was that?”
“A wolf, I’d wager,” said Melena, her heart in her throat. She scanned the forest which seemed to grow darker with each passing second.
“Wolf?” said Toad, voice cracking.
“Yes,” Melena snapped. “We are in a forest.”
“Let’s go back to the inn,” said Toad at once.
“Which one?” Melena demanded, rounding on him. “The one you demolished or the one you stole from?”
In the deepening gloom, Melena could barely make out the outline of Toad’s heart-shaped face and the shine of his wide eyes. “So what — we just stay here? All night?”
“I doubt,” said Melena, her own stomach lurching unpleasantly, “that we’d be able to find our way out before dark anyway. As much as I don’t like saying it, I think we’re better off settling down here for the night.”
Toad seemed too stunned to speak.
“I think,” Melena continued in the wake of his silence, “that we should make a fire.”
Another sharp-edged howl raked over them and it was proof of how frightened they both were that they set about finding sticks and leaves with little argument. Melena had built plenty of fires at the Bell’s apothecary, but it was trickier when using leaves and twigs instead of quick burning kindling or coal and by the time crackling flames replaced smothering smoke, darkness had covered them like a blanket.
It was the worst night of Melena’s life, and she had experienced many sleepless ones with the Bells, both tear-stained and fear-fueled at the Bells’ displeasure for whatever fumble she had recently made. But trying to sleep on a cold forest floor, with roots and rocks poking through her shirt no matter how many times she brushed the ground clear, would have been a feat even without Hazel rustling nervously about, neck stretched, nostril’s wide. And the noises. Sweet Charlotte. Hickory might house terrors in the night — Melena didn’t know — but Holly-Harp Wood was a nightmare of cackles, whistles, screams, and yips. Her stomach lurched with each and every one of them, her mind conjuring visions of dripping fangs, sharp claws …
“I can’t stand this!” Toad roared.
Melena heard him sit up. She stayed put with her back to the fire, curled up, eyes shut as if that would trick her mind into slumber. “Just try to sleep.”
“Sleep? Sleep? Muck wouldn’t be able to sleep through this and he lives by the tracks!”
Melena rolled over at that. “Muck?”
“Montgomery Hughes. Muck for short.”
“How should I know?” said Toad. “I don’t ask — what was that?”
Melena had heard it too: a sharp snap of a stick breaking underfoot … the very obvious rustle of leaves.
“Oh no. Oh no. I don’t wanna get eaten by a wolf!” Toad whispered frantically. He groped in the dark and whipped up a branch they’d saved for the fire, holding it like a sword.
Melena stood, peering into the dark. As safe as the fire had made them both feel, it didn’t cast its light more than three feet. In fact, it made the night of the forest seem even more impenetrable.
“It was probably nothing,” said Melena, trying to convince herself as much as Toad.
“That was not nothing —”
“Just go to sleep. There’s nothing to worry abou — AAAHH!”
Something flapped past her head and it wasn’t Hazel. Melena snatched up a stick of her own and swiped it wildly through the air. She found herself back to back with Toad, like knights waiting for the beast to pounce.
It was a very long time before they sat back down, breathing strained yet steady. It was an even longer time before they fell into a half slumber.
Melena was sure that it was morning, but the forest was as dim and dark as ever. She wondered if she had gotten an hour of sleep, and Toad looked just as dreadful. Red-eyed and pale, leaves sticking out of their hair, they ate breakfast without saying anything, splashing the stream’s cold water on their faces in hopes that it would invigorate them. She cast another hopeful eye along the mossy bank as Toad impatiently crossed his arms, before agreeing that they should find a new spot.
They kept the stream to their left, thinking this might aid them in retracing their steps back to the road. They stopped where they stood when they grew hungry and settled out of sight, keeping a vigilant eye for a flash of blue or white. When it became too dark to easily see, they searched the ground for twigs and dried bits of moss, made a fire and slept as well as they could.
Melena tried not to think about how many times they had repeated these activities. She suspected Toad wasn’t even bothering to try to sleep anymore. To add to the unpleasantness, the food Toad had stolen from the inn ran out alarmingly fast, forcing them to forage for berries, roots and mushrooms. The angry gnawing of Melena’s stomach never quieted for a moment.
“Did you hear that?” Toad asked abruptly.
They were so deep in the wood that they were in perpetual twilight. Melena wished the mossy, fern covered ground wasn’t mist-shrouded. It played tricks with her eyes.
“No,” she said after a moment.
Toad’s shoulders were tense.
“I just thought … never mind.”
But Melena wasn’t going to let it drop.
“Was it a wolf?”
Toad slowly shook his head, still glaring, perturbed, into the gloom they’d come from.
“Didn’t sound like a wolf,” he muttered. “Let’s keep movin’.”
In what felt like a demented time loop, Melena found herself sitting behind a bush, watching the gurgling creek they’d been following. Again. Her eyes itched. She was light headed. Her muscles were cramped and angry from laying on roots and all she wanted was a soft bed and a full belly.
Even Hazel was moody. She sat an arm’s distance away, glaring grouchily at Melena, purposefully trying (in Melena’s opinion) to look as uncomfortable as possible, but Melena couldn’t think of anything else to do. She was confident that the only way to find a unicorn would be to find a blue-wing fairy. She just hadn’t counted on the fairies being as reclusive as unicorns. The horrible thought that they may very well be sitting here for weeks — months — wasn’t helping. At Toad’s insistence, she re-read every mention of unicorns and blue-wing fairies in Guide to All Things Potion, but Edgar Bartholomew did not offer any solutions. It also didn’t help that Toad had developed an annoying habit of checking his watch, letting her know how soon night would fall again.
“I think we should move to a different spot.”
Melena closed her eyes, a headache beginning to pulse.
“Why?” she said. “You’re not a fan of this one?”
“No. I’m not. I don’t like anything about this bloody forest and I say we keep moving!”
“And how is that going to help?” asked Melena in aggravation.
“We’re looking for fairies and unicorns!” Toad shouted. “They ain’t gonna be at a stupid gully! They’d be at an oasis or a spring or some magical unicorny hot spot!”
“I don’t think so,” said Melena stubbornly.
“We’ve done it your way,” Toad snarled. “Time to do it my way and I say we walk through the night.” He stood. “Are you comin’ or not?”
“I don’t think —”
“I don’t care what you think! I want to get out of this godforsaken —”
“Toad, be quiet!”
“DON’T TELL ME TO —”
Melena clamped a hand over his mouth. “Shhh! Look!”
She pointed to the creek and Toad’s furious eyes widened in shock.
Three fairies skittered across the bubbling creek’s surface. They were barely two inches tall and the bright silver of moonlight. Their wings were pale blue and huge compared to their slender bodies. A chime-like sound came from them that had to be, Melena realized, laughter.
At once, Melena and Toad were back on their knees, peering through the lower branches of the bush.
“How long d’you think it’ll be?” Toad breathed.
“I don’t know.” Melena looked around, but there was no flash of white amongst the green.
There was a splash and she turned quickly back to the stream. The fairies were laughing harder now. A frog had leapt into the water. Melena was confident that a unicorn would hear the fairies. A creak of branches made her turn her head. Was a unicorn nearing?
“Melena!” Toad’s choked voice sent her heart leaping.
“Do you see it?” she asked, turning back around, but Toad’s face was horror struck as he frantically pointed toward the creek. “What —” Melena’s stomach plummeted as she saw what. Hazel, green belly pressed against the earth, wings flat against her back, was steadily creeping toward the dancing fairies.
“Hazel! No!” Melena ordered in a strangled whisper.
Hazel ignored her.
“If she scares them away, I’m gonna kill her!” Toad threatened.
Melena was too terrified of Hazel ruining their opportunity to attract a unicorn to be angry with Toad.
“Hazel! Get — back — here!”
Hazel paused and Melena knew she’d heard her, but a second later, Hazel pounced. Water splashed, Hazel snapped her jaws, the fairies scattered and Melena leapt to her feet, fury on the tip of her tongue, when she heard a soft rustling … a gentle swish of a tail.
Half concealed by a broad oak, glowing like a ghost in the darkness, stood a snowy white unicorn. Melena was stunned speechless. The unicorn stood frozen, clearly as startled by Melena’s sudden appearance as Melena was of it. It twitched its pointed ears, nostrils quivering.
Hazel didn’t even notice the unicorn, still happily leaping in the creek’s shallows after the fairies. One of them zoomed to the unicorn’s head, circling its long, spindly arms around its horn.
Melena swallowed thickly as the unicorn continued to stare at her, expecting it to bolt, but it stayed, watching Melena. She was sure that one wrong move and the unicorn would vanish. Toad remained crouched behind her, hidden completely by the bush.
“Don’t move,” he whispered, echoing Melena’s thoughts.
A second later, she heard him rustle away.
“Wha — Toad — Toad —” What was he doing? Where had he gone? She dared not look around to see.
The unicorn took a hesitant half step toward her, sniffing the air with wary curiosity and Melena was struck once more by its spell-binding beauty. Brighter than snow, softer than moonlight, the creature made the rest of the forest dull in comparison. The unicorn swished its cascading tail, brushing leaves from the forest floor. It lifted another shimmering, pearl-colored hoof, its ears and eyes fixed upon Melena —
The unicorn let out a startled snort, jumped forward and spun around, its nostrils flared, its eyes bulging. The fairies fled, disappearing into the trees. With a most satisfied grin, Toad stood where the unicorn had, his fist raised in triumph. In that fist were a few gleaming strands of its tail.
Enraged, the unicorn lowered its head, its horn pointed straight at Toad’s heart.
“TOAD! RUN!” Melena yelled.
Toad’s grin faltered as the unicorn pawed the ground. It charged. Toad yelped and dived into a cluster of bushes. The unicorn snorted, slashing at the trembling branches with its crystalline horn, rearing and stabbing.
With the unicorn distracted, Melena ran to the creek, scooped up Hazel, and quickly retreated. Moments later, Toad was beside her. They fled, dashing through the forest at top speed, half-fearing the pound of hooves followed them. Finally, they collapsed beside a fallen tree, gasping for air. The forest was still.
“You — got — them?” Melena gasped, cradling a stitch in her side.
Toad’s cheeks were flushed. “Yeah,” he beamed, holding up his fist.
“Wonderful!” Melena took the hairs. Her hands were shaking. She put them away in a safe inner pocket of her knapsack. Toad was bouncing on the balls of his feet and the grin that he gave her matched her own. One ingredient down.
“Let’s get out of here,” he cheered.