Spirits high, Melena and Toad set off, weaving their way through Holly-Harp Wood. But their happiness quickly faded.
“D’you know where the road is?” asked Toad.
“No,” said Melena.
In their haste to flee the unicorn, they had left the creek — their only navigational aid — behind them.
“Maybe I could climb a tree…” Toad offered, peering at a colossal chestnut.
But just as Toad was testing a low branch, an angry shout cut through the forest foliage, making them turn in surprise.
“Move, you cantankerous lump of mule meat!”
Melena and Toad glanced at each other before hurrying toward the voice. Not even two minutes later they had tumbled through a thick patch of gorse and onto the winding dirt road. At once they saw the source of the shout. A purple wagon, paint faded and chipped in places, was stuck in a thick pool of mud. A doleful mule was slowly biting off tufts of grass, completely ignoring the old woman smoldering with rage before it.
“I told you to MOVE, you flea-bitten bit of dung!” the old lady screamed.
At the sound, the woman spun around, her shawls and beads whipping through the air.
“Think this is funny, do you?” she shrieked, making Melena and Toad flinch. “Get over here and help me!”
Unsure how to refuse, they walked toward her. Upon close inspection, the old woman had a grouchy, sour face that closely resembled that of a moose. With her large, bulbous nose and pouchy eyes, Melena wondered if the only expression she could physically make was a scowl.
Hazel flapped onto the wagon’s roof. As Melena’s eyes followed Hazel, she read the yellow painted letters upon the wagon’s side:
“Help me get my wagon out of this muck!” Guave commanded, pointing a bony finger at the back wheels. “I’ve got places to be!”
“What do we get —” Toad began, but Melena interrupted him.
“We’ll be happy to help.”
Toad stared at Melena in disbelief.
Together with a not enthused Toad, Melena pushed and heaved against the back of the wagon while Guave tugged upon the mule’s reins. But the mule flattened his ears and planted his hooves more firmly into the ground.
“You — dratted — useless — waste of — hide —” Guave panted, yanking with all her might.
Red-faced and sweating, Melena glanced up to see Hazel’s bright eyes peering down at her in puzzlement.
“Don’t just sit there staring at me! Do something, Hazel,” Melena panted.
Perhaps Hazel felt a tiny bit of guilt for ignoring Melena’s furious orders before, though Melena doubted it. Thankfully, Hazel’s favorite pastime was startling unsuspecting victims. With a whip of her long tail, she disappeared from sight, scurrying along the wagon’s roof to the stubborn mule. She inhaled deeply and let out a great burst of flame that shot past the mule’s ears.
The mule screamed. With a great lurch, the wagon was yanked out of the mud and bounded onto the dirt road. Lady Guave barely managed to get out of the way of flaying hooves, tumbling over sideways and sprawling onto the road in a heap, her shawls a tangle.
“Stop! STOP!” Guave shouted.
And much to Melena’s surprise, the mule did stop. They hurried after him to find him happily grabbing great mouthfuls from a leafy bush. Guave readjusted her shawls with annoyance and faced them.
“I suppose thanks are in order,” she said sourly.
“You’re welcome.” Melena smiled while Toad glared. His front was covered in mud.
“I don’t have extra money to give you,” Guave pondered. “Ah! I’ll give you a reading, free of charge!” Her smile was oddly sharp.
Guave’s pouchy eyes latched onto him and she barked, “Get inside my wagon, boy, and get my teapot!”
“What d’you need a teapot for?” Toad demanded.
“Because I said so! Now get it!”
“Get your own bloody —”
“Toad,” said Melena swiftly. “Please?”
Grumbling nothing but nastiness, Toad clambered into the wagon.
“Now then.” Guave settled down onto a tree stump. “What’s your name, girl?”
“Melena Snead,” said Melena, feeling suddenly nervous.
Guave peered at her sideways like an evil-tempered chicken.
“You’re looking for something …” the old woman began, red-rimmed eyes piercing.
“Yes, I am,” said Melena, startled. She had never had her fortune told before and was suddenly very excited. “I’m looking for my —”
“Don’t spew it all over the place! I’m the one telling!” Guave barked.
“Sorry,” Melena apologized.
Guave glared at her before closing her pouchy eyes.
“I see … someone,” she muttered. “You are seeking … searching …”
“Yes, my bro —”
Guave’s watery eyes flew open and she suddenly looked so much like an angry snapping turtle that Melena’s voice died in her throat.
“I see a person …” Guave continued in the same low murmur, closing her furious eyes again. “He is surrounded by fog … I cannot see his face … he is … your brother?”
Guave opened her grumpy eyes. Melena nodded vigorously.
“Do you see me finding him?” Melena asked in a rush before the old woman could stop her. “Can you see where he is? Is he hurt?”
Guave’s fat lips pursed in aggravation.
“For that,” she said sharply, “I’d need three silvertons.” She pulled from inside her numerous shawls a sickly pink mug.
“But I thought you would tell my fortune for free because I helped you,” said Melena, stung.
“I’m old, girl. No pay. No information.” Guave gave the pink mug a demanding shake.
Melena frowned in irritation, but opened her knapsack for her money pouch anyway.
“Don’t pay the old coot.” Toad jumped down from the wagon, a flowery teapot in hand. He pushed it into Guave’s gnarled hands, scowling. “She doesn’t know nuthin’, Melena. Don’t waste your money on her.”
Guave leapt to her feet, flinging the teapot aside.
“I don’t know anything?” she demanded, eyes popping. “I? Lady Guave?” She seemed to expand with rage. Melena took a nervous step backward but Toad held his ground.
“A lucky bunch of guess work is all you do,” he spat.
“You imbecile!” Guave shrieked, her hands turning into claws. “You worthless bit of slime! How dare you!”
“Come on, Melena, we’ve wasted enough time. Shoulda left her in the mud.”
Melena didn’t want to leave. Guave knew something! She knew where Milo was!
Toad grabbed Melena by the wrist, turned on his heel, and walked away, dragging Melena after him. Hazel, who had been ignoring all of this, lounging on Guave’s roof, took to the air and flew after them.
The moment the old lady’s rants faded in the distance, Melena managed to yank herself free.
“How can you be sure that she didn’t know anything about my brother?” she demanded.
“I’m telling you. Those fortunetellers are nuthin’ but liars.”
“They can’t all be liars!” Melena argued. “She might have been telling the truth — she might know exactly where Milo is and you insulted her before she could say!”
“She didn’t know squat,” said Toad flatly. “She was gonna clean you out of gold faster than a weasel in a hen house. I heard the whole thing. You practically told her everything — ‘Is it my brother? Do you see my brother?’ Honestly, Melena, you make it so easy to get conned!”
Melena clamped her jaw shut and turned away, furious with Toad and furious with herself, for she could feel the tell-tale prick of tears. And she was not going to cry in front of this obnoxious —
“Wilson, his sister was one. She used to run with a gang of ’em before she got hung. Telling fortunes — more like pickin’ pockets, snatchin’ purses. But sometimes … sometimes they did other stuff. They don’t just carry knickknacks in those wagons. They’re dangerous. Probably the most dangerous people you could meet.”
Toad fell silent. Melena had never seen him so serious. It made him look far older than twelve. The look on his face took her by surprise and for a moment she forgot she was angry.
“I just — there just ain’t no need for you to get your hopes up. ’Cuz I know about getting your hopes up. That’s all,” he finished.
Melena didn’t respond. She looked away, her eyes focusing on the moss-covered trees before her. She suddenly felt a twinge of shame. She wasn’t the only person who was longing to be reunited with someone. Toad hadn’t seen his father since he was a baby and though she hadn’t asked, Melena suspected that he didn’t even know who his mother was, and apparently, he’d lost the thief gang that had raised him, and he never once complained about it. He seemed to have come to terms with being on his own, but that didn’t mean it still didn’t hurt. An uncomfortable knot formed in her chest. How would she feel if her companion was constantly reminding her of what she was missing?
“Tickle your toes
Tickle your toes
All the way to mar-ket
Squint your eyes
Pick your nose
Melena jumped at the sudden singing. She looked about quickly, but they were the only ones on the road, and the voice sounded much too close. Sounded, in fact, like there was someone standing right between them.
“What was that?” Melena asked.
“Nuthin’,” Toad grunted, though he glanced nervously down at the front of his buttoned-up coat.
The sharp, annoying voice continued to trill its song and Melena stared at Toad’s chest. She couldn’t understand it, but she was sure the singing came from within the confines of his coat.
She reached out her hand.
“Hey!” Toad clamped his arms over his chest.
Now a cackling, mad laughter was coming from within the coat.
“What’s in there?” asked Melena.
“Why are you so nosy?” Toad fired back
“Nooosy,” the sharp voice echoed. “Nosy, nosy, NOOOSY!”
“Can’t you shut it up?” asked Melena, screwing up her eyes as the voice jumped off the trees.
Toad hesitated, his arms still clamped protectively over his chest. He seemed to want to keep whatever it was out of sight, but the voice was energized now, whistling like a kettle. Toad opened his coat and withdrew the most bizarre — thing — Melena had ever seen.
It was a beer mug. The ugliest, foulest beer mug in Calendula. It had been fashioned to look like a human face. The color of its ‘skin’ was a sickly tan with a splattering of pale spots, like the skin of someone who had baked in the sun one time too many. It had tiny, striped, glass blue marbles for eyes that spun about in a frenzy, making Melena’s stomach twist sickly at the sight. A beaky nose sat above an enormous mouth and that mouth was what she couldn’t stop staring at, even more so than the spinning eyes. It took up half its ghoulish face with large curved teeth. It looked like something that belonged to a freak show. Or something that danced about in nightmares. And even worse: it was talking.
“Ah, sunlight,” it commented with a sigh.
Melena stared at Toad.
“What?” he asked.
“What is it?”
“Such an enchanting day,” the beer mug mused through its frightful grin. Then it frowned, its beady eyes suddenly shrewd, taking in its surroundings. “Though not much sunlight…”
“He’s Joe,” said Toad. “Ol’ Joe. The Bewitched Beer Mug of Thieves. I saw him in that crazy lady’s wagon.”
“So of course, you decided to steal him!”
“He doesn’t belong to her,” Toad flared, hotly. “His rightful place is among thieves. Anyone who has Joe is the Thief Lord. Everybody knows that. I couldn’t let him stay with that woman.”
“Wait. You’re a Thief Lord now?” said Melena, incredulous.
Toad blinked at her owlishly. Than his face broke into a smile that rivaled the mug’s.
“But — how?”
“What d’ya mean how?” Toad snapped, his expression of euphoria turning sour. “I just am.”
“But,” Melena pressed, utterly confused, “how can a beer mug make you a Lord? That doesn’t make any sense.”
“That doesn’t matter! It’s just the way it is. It’s been this way forever. Everybody knows the rules.”
The hideous beer mug started humming his stupid song again and then expelled a loud belch. How something like that made you a Thief Lord, Melena could not fathom.
“Does it have any manners?” she asked, disgusted as Joe smacked his fat lips in satisfaction.
Toad actually seemed dumbfounded.
“What would a beer mug need manners for?”
Melena grimaced, disgusted as Joe stuck out his tongue and waggled it at her.
“It’s getting dark again,” she said, turning away from the sight. “If you’re lordship is willing, we should start a fire.”