When the witch told him to get her stupid teapot, Toad agreed only because he wasn’t in the mood to argue with her and Melena. He stomped around inside her wagon, banging into things, making more noise than was necessary—
“I say, could you be a tad quieter in your rampaging?”
Toad’s head whipped around. His jaw dropped.
“Much better,” praised the beer mug.
“You’re — you’re —”
“Take your time,” the beer mug encouraged.
“You’ve heard of me?” cried the mug, delighted.
“Jack talked about you all the time!” Toad couldn’t believe his eyes. After years of hearing about the Bewitched Beer Mug of Thieves, here he was! Sitting upon a cluttered shelf, between a basket of knitting needles and a gaudy old necklace.
“Jack? Do you mean Jack the Barbarian?” inquired the mug sharply.
“Nah. Jack Pinch of the Ramblers.”
“Oh, no. I was never owned by a Jack Pinch of the Ramblers. But Jack the Barbarian did talk a great deal — perhaps that was how your Jack heard of me?”
Toad glanced over his shoulder. He could hear through the walls of the wagon that Melena and the fortuneteller were talking.
“He was a dastardly fellow,” the beer mug continued happily. “Truly repugnant. And smelled! Ah, lad, the stench could knock over an ox! And his brother Jenkins — I made up a poem about him.”
The mug fussily cleared his throat:
“Jittery Jenkins jumps and jingles
Jumbles and bumbles
Bungles and Tumbles —”
Toad snatched the mug off the shelf and tucked him away inside his coat, the poem now muffled as Joe, unperturbed, continued to recite. Toad waited inside the wagon until the mug had finished.
He hadn’t planned on telling Melena about Joe, but when Joe began to sing, there wasn’t much he could do to hide that. He didn’t care that Melena didn’t like Joe. Having an enchanted beer mug with them had to come in handy.
The air between them was frigid as Melena set about gathering sticks for another fire, and Toad, sick of Holly-Harp, argued that they should press on through the night, sparking a furious argument to erupt.
“WE’RE MAKING A FIRE AND THAT’S THAT!” Melena bellowed.
Stewing, Toad stomped through the darkening underbrush, looking for twigs. Who’d put her in charge, anyway? If he was calling the shots, they’d already be out of this bloody forest. Melena was an uppity, controlling nag. What did he need her for? He was the one who got the unicorn hair! She’d just stood there like a gaping goldfish! He didn’t need her! He didn’t need anyone! He — Toad, son of Bonaparte Yuff, Pirate of the High Seas and wrangler of wolf eels — was the Thief Lord! He was … he …
Toad stopped in his tracks; the armful of sticks he’d collected cascaded from his grip. His gaze was unfocused, his mind a sudden delirious whirl.
“Master Toad?” asked Joe from the belt loop that Toad had tied the mug’s handle to. “Are we playing a new game now? I must say the ‘pick up sticks’ was a bit monotonous, but I am quite fond of impersonations.” The mug quickly grew excited. “You look just like a trout, Master Toad! That’s what you are, isn’t it? I’ll have a go now, shall I?” Joe stuck out his tongue. “Guess what I am, Master Toad!” he said, sounding like a child at a party.
“I’m the Thief Lord,” Toad whispered.
Joe stopped hissing like a leaking gas lamp, his frown back in place. “No, Master Toad, you looked much more like a trout,” he said critically.
“I can go back home. The Ramblers will take me back — they’ll have to.” All the stories Jack and Wilson had told him about the Beer Mug of Thieves and Toad — Toad — had it. What was he doing crawling around a forest for fire starter when he could be in Hickory? When he could be home?
Toad turned on the spot. Thoughts of resuming his rightful place beside Jack filling his mind—
“Hold on there, Lordie.”
Toad jumped. A bush rustled just out of sight and a moment later, a long, lean form stepped into view.
Toad knew it was him, even in the gloom of the forest. It would be a long time before he forgot the leering, blade-wielding creep from Owl’s house.
“What are you doing here?” Toad demanded. He hastily took a step back and nearly tripped over a root.
Cutter snickered. “Blind and deaf. I’ve been tailing you since you left Hickory. Some Thief Lord you are.”
Toad’s stomach clenched. He’d been right. He’d kept it to himself, because really, what was there to be done about it? Ever since they’d entered this blasted forest, Toad had felt the lurking sensation that something was watching them, and all the while it had been Cutter.
“Oh?” Toad said, harshly. “And why’ve you been doing that?”
“You didn’t think Mr. Owl would just let you go on your merry way, did you? I’m your” — Cutter’s teeth glistened in a predatory smile — “handler.”
Toad’s stomach gave a sickening lurch. “What’re you on about? I don’t need your help. I’m gettin’ Owl’s goods. You tell him that — you tell him, I’ve got it under control.”
Cutter laughed and the sound made the hairs on Toad’s arms stand on end. Cutter reached into his coat pocket and Toad flinched, but Cutter didn’t pull out his knife. Instead there was the strike of a match and the glow of a cigarette. Toad wrinkled his nose as Cutter blew smoke in his direction.
“I’ll tell him you got the unicorn hair, don’t you worry about that.” Cutter took a step forward and Toad immediately retreated until his back hit a tree. “But — and I could be mistaken — but it looked to me that you were thinking about hiking it just now.”
“Yeah?” said Toad, eyes fixed on the glowing ember drooping from Cutter’s lips.
“Yeah,” Cutter breathed. “All that grumbling and talk about beer mugs, but here’s the thing, kid. Mr. Owl doesn’t follow thief rules. Mr. Owl told you to get his ingredients and that’s what you’re gonna do.” Cutter stopped a hair’s breadth from Toad, putrid smoke filling his nostrils. “Ain’t cha?”
The silent threat was impossible to miss. Unable to speak, Toad jerkily nodded his head.
“Good boy,” Cutter whispered and Toad wanted to swing his fist in his pockmarked face. “Keep this up and you might have all those ingredients by February.”
“February? What’s February got to do with anything?”
“That’s your new deadline now that the boss knows you’ve got some chance at success. But if you don’t … if you run for it … my knife’s gonna have a good ol’ time with you and that girl —”
“Leave her out of this!” said Toad. “She’s got nuthin’ to do with this!”
But Cutter’s soft laughter doused Toad in iced water, freezing the blood in his veins. “You think you’ve got any say in this, boy? You’re a nobody. A stupid kid who got into a stupid situation. But now, you’ve gotta deliver or things are gonna get mighty unpleasant mighty fast.” He moved his face within an inch of Toad’s and it took every ounce of Toad’s willpower to hold still even as cigarette ash tumbled onto his shirt. “Now how about you pick up those sticks and head back to that girl and don’t worry about wolves. I’ll look after you.”
It took a long time before Toad could make himself move after Cutter slipped back out of sight, enveloped in shadow, his dark laugh teasingly drifting on a night breeze. He was slick with sweat.
“Master Toad, that fellow seemed rather suspect,” Joe finally voiced from Toad’s hip.
A strangled laugh escaped Toad’s mouth. “Yeah. Yeah, he ain’t too swell.”
“I do not recommend further fraternization,” Joe advised.
Toad didn’t reply, bending down to pick up the sticks he’d dropped. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t stop his hands from shaking.
Toad kept Cutter’s visit to himself. Joe, oddly enough, remained mute on the matter as well. Then again, Joe belonged to Toad and it only made sense that his mug would hold his lord’s secrets. As much as Melena wanted the ‘payment’ to hire a private detective, Toad suspected that learning that a knife-happy thug was trailing after them might change her mind. It was imperative now, more than ever, that Toad get the ingredients and that Melena stayed with him, which in turn, required Melena to think that everything was peachy.
Unfortunately, Melena was dangerously perceptive.
“Is something wrong?” she asked.
Toad’s eyes jerked to her. “What? No.”
“It’s just” — she narrowed her eyes — “you keep looking behind you. Did we forget something?” And she immediately began checking her bag and patting down her pockets.
“No,” said Toad, so quickly that Melena’s eyebrows rose. “It’s just being in this forest makes me think something’s watching us. You know?”
When they finally exited Holly-Harp Wood, Toad and Melena both let out a breath of relief. All Toad wanted was to curl up and sleep for days in the soft grass, but twilight was heavy on the horizon and a new fire had to be started …
Toad shot another nervous glance over his shoulder, squinting in the sunlight, but Holly-Harp Wood was nowhere in sight. It had to be harder for Cutter to follow them now that they were clear of the forest. Surely they’d be able to give him the slip. But there was no reason for Cutter to hurt them. Not yet, Toad reminded himself darkly. Owl wanted the ingredients and Cutter was there to make sure they were working on just that. For the first time, Toad wondered about the value of the ingredients they were hunting. For someone who’d been taught to seek out things that stunk of wealth, he’d never paid any mind to unicorn hairs or the like. Was there another reason why Cutter was here? Did Owl fear that Toad would make off with them … sell them for a pretty price? Because no matter what Owl had said about ‘discussing payment’, Toad had the growing suspicion that Owl wasn’t going to exchange anything for the ingredients. Why would he when he practically had Toad’s arms wrestled behind his back? And if that was the case, what would stop Cutter from snatching up their supply when they’d finally managed to get the lot, and slice their throats for good measure? Toad shivered involuntarily and hunched his shoulders, the hairs on the back of his neck unpleasantly raised.
They traveled on foot for the next week, past sweeping fields of pasture, with not a single passing buggy, toward the closest town on her map. Melena was so tired, her feet riddled with blisters, that she wouldn’t have minded hopping onto one, regardless of the unpleasant ride. Toad seemed to have developed a twitch that Melena hadn’t noticed before; though he tried to be sneaky about it, Melena caught him numerous times shooting harried glances behind them. Asking what was wrong didn’t seem to help. Toad would jerk in surprise, eyes going comically wide as if she’d caught him in some wrong doing, before quickly changing the subject. So she stopped bringing up his increasingly odd behavior, but when his back was turned, when he was occupied with other matters, she swept a quick eye herself over the horizon, but she never saw anyone or anything, save a half-dozen curly-horned bulls.
They got better and faster at setting up camp, though Melena began to fantasize about plump cushions and warm blankets with a desperation bordering obsession. She developed a tick just as pronounced as Toad’s, glancing down at her map over and over, though it was impossible to tell if they were any closer to the little inked dot of Hollytown. She had never had the nicest accommodations, though she supposed she’d lived well the few short years she’d had with her parents; Miggens Street was on the nicer end of East Hickory. The orphanage had been crowded. It was common for the children to share beds, and she, more often than not, would wake with an elbow in her ear and a knee in her back. The lumpy, moldy mattress the Bells had supplied her with hadn’t been much of a step up, either. But at least she’d been slightly comfortable with Hazel often snuggling close on cold nights. Melena quickly discovered that stretching out under the stars was something only delightful in poetry, not remotely pleasant when actually experienced. At least there weren’t tree roots digging into her back.
Once, they were lucky enough to hunker down in a farmer’s barn, nestled in hay, crooned to sleep by the grunt of pigs. Toad lifted a half-dozen eggs out from a nest box the morning after, replacing them with a few druets Melena passed him. The meal that followed felt excessively decadent.
Then there was Joe, who, no matter what Toad said, was not useful in the slightest. In fact, he seemed to go out of his way to make their days as difficult as possible, often questioning the route, causing Toad to voice concern, causing Melena to dig out the map (again) and argue that yes, this was the quickest way to Hollytown. Joe jabbered nonsense or spontaneously quoted randomly from encyclopedias and journals. He was just as likely to bite fingers as he was to pay compliments and often started up games only to change the rules halfway through, growing snappish and huffy when Melena or Toad made mistakes. If he felt that the atmosphere was growing too quiet, he’d break into one of his songs, none of which were remotely good but stuck in Melena’s brain like taffy. He believed in rising early and would roust them at the crack of dawn with sharp whistles and bugle calls. His insistent perkiness for the hours that followed was more draining than the long trek of road before them.
“Can’t you make him stop,” Melena pleaded as they gulped down water from a stream.
Toad had left Joe on a nearby tree stump. Hazel, neck stretched to its fullest, kept trying to sniff him, but each time she got close, Joe snapped his gruesome teeth, sending the dragon reeling backward.
“I’ve tried,” Toad whispered dejectedly. “He told me Jack the Barbarian always preferred ‘risin’ with the sun.’”
“But you aren’t Jack the Barbarian,” said Melena, voice strained. “Tell him Toad the … the Lounger likes his sleep.”
Toad opened his mouth in annoyance at her title for him only to turn in surprise when a rumbling sounded in the distance. From where they’d come a great cloud of dust had lifted into the air. Something was coming toward them. And it moved at a very quick clip.
Toad shielded his eyes with a hand. He grinned. “Finally! That’s a buggy.”
Melena hurriedly squinted at the horizon. “Are you sure?”
“Oh, yeah. That’s a buggy all right!”
“But don’t you think it’s moving too quickly?” said Melena, nervous.
Toad hesitated for half a breath before saying, “No, I wouldn’t say so.”
“Toad, are you sure, because I don’t—”
“It’s coming up! Get ready!” he said, snatching up Joe.
Melena’s jump was just as awkward as the first time she’d done it, but after quickly securing her feet and wrapping her arms around the rails, she felt lighter than a dandelion. Toad grinned at her through his mess of whipping hair.
“See?” he said. “Easy peasy.”
The buggy had done the trick. The long break off their aching feet and the distance crossed lifted their moods. At the sight of Hollytown, they hopped off, quickly found the nearest inn and paid for a meal that made Melena so full, she thought she might retch.
Toad leaned back in his chair, massaging his stomach, a contented sigh on his lips.
“Goodness,” said the proprietor, as she took away the cleaned remains of their turkey legs. “Should I dare ask if you two have room for dessert?”
“No thank you,” said Melena as Hazel, still chewing on a bone under her chair, let out a soft belch. “I think we’re good.”
The woman nodded and left. Melena dug inside her bag, propped against her chair and pulled out her map. Toad cracked open an eye and said, “Mirg water next?”
“Oh, no,” said Melena. “We’re much too far away to get that one next. I think …” She narrowed her eyes and tapped her chin, thinking. “I think our best option is to get the Elfin Gold. It’s in Dunthur, which, according to the map is a good ways … We could head to Ramsey Port instead to reach the Shards, but I think that will put us out of our way. And we’d have to backtrack to get the moonflower…”
“Shards?” asked Toad, picking as his teeth. “What’s that?”
Hazel climbed onto Melena’s lap, the turkey bone still clamped in her jaws.
“A cluster of islands,” Melena explained. “That’s where the rocs live. But like I said, I think we should head to Dunthur first.”
Toad straightened in his chair. “We have to go to sea?”
“Yes. From there we’ll continue on to the Blackens to get your Mirg water,” she said.
“Okay,” Toad snickered as if she’d uttered a joke. “Stop fooling around.”
Melena looked up from her map. “What?”
“It’ll be best for both of us if you just come out and say it.”
“Say what?” Melena asked blankly.
“That we can get all this stuff at an apothecary. There’s one right down the road — I saw it. We can even leave a tip on the counter.”
“Toad, I told you. We can’t get these ingredients in an apothecary.”
“Not in any?”
“No, not in any,” Melena snapped, growing annoyed by his dubiousness. “I swear, Toad. I want to get back to Hickory as much as you do. I want to find my brother. But there’s no way of going about this easily. And anyway, I thought you wanted to go exploring like your father? And if you want me to prove it, we can ask the owner of the shop you spotted. He’ll tell you.”
“Fine,” Toad said, suddenly angry. “So we’ll go to Dunthur and then head to the Baskens.”
“Blackens,” Melena corrected. She traced a winding route on the map with her finger.
“But we don’t have to go all that way, do we?” asked Toad in surprise. He pointed at the map where her finger rested: the Blackens. The northern tip of Calendula. “How are we gonna get all the way up there?”
“A boat or a train. Maybe both. It’ll take some time —”
“How much time?” Toad demanded.
“I don’t know.” Melena stared in confusion at his rough tone. “Months probably.”
“Months?” Toad repeated. “How many months?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, I think Dunthur could easily be a month away, and then … Toad, are you all right?”
Toad had turned a frightful shade of white.
“Look,” he said in a very low voice, “we gotta be back in Hickory by February.”
“Well, I can’t make any promises,” said Melena, puzzled as to why Toad was bringing this up now. “I don’t know if we will.”
“What d’you mean you don’t know!” Toad shouted, making Melena and Hazel jerk in surprise; a few diners turned in their chairs with disapproving mutters of ‘children’. Hazel growled around her bone. “How can it take us six months to get just a few stupid ingredients?”
“Why are you so upset? This is going to take time. I told you it wouldn’t be easy. I’m only guessing — I don’t know for sure. Maybe if we keep using buggies like today, we’ll be back in Hickory by January.” She only said this to calm him as he was looking quite alarmed and she had absolutely no intention of getting tossed out of the inn for a ruckus when a warm, comfortable bed waited for her upstairs. And these words did seem to soothe him somewhat. He settled back down, but chewed on his lip in a nettled way.
“Why does it matter that we’re back in Hickory by February?” Melena asked.
“’Cuz that’s when Owl wants ’em,” said Toad.
“You never told me that.”
“I’m tellin’ you now.” Toad glared at her, brown eyes so dark that for the first time since being with him, Melena felt nervous. “We gotta be back by February. We gotta. Or all deals are off.”
Melena had every intention of heading out for Dunthur early, but she overslept, and upon waking, had a very difficult time locating Toad. She ended up finding him on the street.
“Where’ve you been?” she demanded.
Toad’s cheeks were tinged pink, his eyes twinkling, and on one shoulder was a large, lumpy satchel.
“Provisions,” he said.
Melena’s eyes widened as she realized what he meant.
“Oh, Toad, you didn’t steal—”
“Let’s get moving! Not gonna get that Elfin Gold standing around!”
They marched through a wheat field outside of Hollytown, heading toward the main road. Toad kept an eye out for buggies and Melena kept an eye on her map, reassuring herself that they were going in the right direction. They were making their way to the twisting, frightening caves of Dunthur to collect the Elfin Gold moss. After rereading Bartholomew’s description, warning all travelers of the dangers the caves posed, Melena’s thoughts turned fretful, filled with endless tunnels that looped in circles.
But if she was ever going to find Milo, then she had to get the moss. They would collect it, turn southwest for Ramsey Port, and head to sea for the roc talon. Melena could not fathom how they would ever collect all that they needed and return to Hickory by February. She was rather frustrated that Mr. Owl had demanded such a short time frame.
After two weeks had passed, Toad’s provisions had been consumed, forcing them to return to scavenging for food, and Melena began to worry about the size of their task. Every evening, though her eyes itched with tiredness, her body numb with fatigue and hunger, she took out the map and studied their route. She wasn’t very far off in her estimation that it would take a month to reach Dunthur. And Ramsey Port was just as far, and who knew how long a sea voyage to the Shards would last, not to mention how long it would take to then reach the Blackens. And then there was the moonflower which only bloomed during the full moon. How they would time that out properly, Melena had no idea.
A spell of rain slowed their already sluggish progress, churning the road to mud under their feet. It didn’t help that it took Melena an hour to convince Hazel to come down from the shelter of a spruce.
“Unlike Slinkwings and the Frilled Longback, Spit-Fires generally dislike water, as it hinders their fire-breathing capabilities, Dragon Book of Dragons, third edition,” Joe supplied from Toad’s hip.
“Them and me both,” Toad muttered, lifting his foot out of a pool of mud with a squelch.
As the terrain slowly transitioned to the rocky landscape of Dunthur, Joe, who had been the only cheerful one in the group during the stretch of rain, suddenly turned more wild than normal, insisting that they were going the wrong way and that they must turn back. It didn’t matter that Melena thrust the map right in front of his spinning eyes, he argued with growing tenacity: “I have seen every map under the Calendula sun and you, missy, are going the WRONG WAY!”
To appease the insistent mug, Toad convinced Melena to let Joe lead the way. (“Why do you always have to be in charge?! He might know a shortcut!”)
Joe’s shortcut was certainly roundabout, leading them through thickets and across dangerous slopes, rocks sliding out from under their feet, but it wasn’t until Toad began to notice that the area seemed familiar that they realized Joe was leading them back to where they’d come. It took nearly a full day to backtrack and Joe was stuffed unceremoniously into Toad’s knapsack.
As satisfying as it was to have the mug out of sight, Joe turned even more manic within the burlap’s confines. Melena began to suspect that he truly was mad. He reminded Melena of some of the more problematic children in the orphanage. The ones that stomped and raged and threw their few belongings against the walls when they didn’t get what they wanted. But Melena didn’t understand what was fueling this behavior with Joe, now of all times, when he had been moderately reasonable days before.
When it dawned on the mug that no matter how many times he insisted they turn around — no matter how tired he made them with sleepless nights and endless, looping arguments — he was not going to get them to stop their trek to the caves, he changed tact.
No longer did he bring up shortcuts; instead, much to Melena’s aggravation, he began quoting lines from Bartholomew’s Guide to All Things Potion in a mocking, high-pitched baby voice. It seemed that one of his previous masters had owned a copy of the book too and Melena knew that Joe was making fun of her book just to rattle her further.
Finally, with their feet throbbing, their throats parched, and their hair and clothes disheveled, they came upon a thrilling sight: a sign for Dunthur.
“We’re almost there!” Melena cried joyfully.
“Blimey,” Toad moaned, collapsing onto the dusty road. “When we get there, can we stay awhile? In an inn?”
“I bet at the pace we’ve been going we’ll be there in two days,” said Melena, feverishly consulting her map.
“And eat roast beef. With mustard. Lots of mustard. And potatoes. And fried pies. And —”
“Come on, Toad,” said Melena, rolling up her map. “We should start seeing some inns now that we’re so close.”
Spurred on by the idea of a hot meal, they headed down the road with new life. They climbed what felt like the tenth large, sloping hill. Dunthur’s countryside was dry, and rocky, full of blunt, jagged edges with a color scape of tan to copper. The sky was cloudless, the sun a glaring eye upon their backs. Just as Melena was silently appreciating that Joe was (finally) quiet, the mug began:
“‘Take two handfuls of prickleberch seeds and mash them, smash them,’” Joe recited in his baby croon. “‘Prickly is the prickleberch.’ Prickly, tickly!” Joe suddenly switched to his cutting, normal tone. “I say, Master Toad, you could write such a guide!”
“Sorry?” Toad asked his knapsack, taken aback.
“A guide, Master Toad. A guide to potions! It is all very simple. You don’t need much knowledge” — Joe laughed nastily inside the bag — “like I said, ‘Prickly is the prickleberch’. How deeply informative. How astutely helpful. How —”
Melena snatched Toad’s knapsack from his back.
“Hey!” Toad shouted, trying to grab it back.
“I’m sick of that horrible mug!” Melena screeched. “I haven’t had a proper night’s sleep since you got him! I’m tossing it out!”
“Don’t you dare!” Toad gripped hold of the bag’s shoulder straps and pulled, but Melena dug in her fingernails and yanked it back.
“Bartholomew was a baboon!” Joe sang merrily from inside the knapsack. “A red-faced, white-haired, ugly BABOON!”
“Joe, SHUT-UP!” Toad yelled, still pulling on the knapsack with all his might.
Hazel watched with interest from a nearby boulder.
“BARTHOLOMEW DROOLED IN HIS SLEEP!”
“He’s foul! Awful! I hate him!” Melena snarled.
“BABOON! UGLY, FOUL, AWFUL BABOON!” Joe cackled.
In tug of war fashion, Melena and Toad battled for the bag.
Rip! One of the strap’s stitches came undone and Melena and Toad tumbled over backwards. The bag fell with a soft thump on the ground between them. Red-faced and furious, they scrambled upright but just as they were about to lunge for the bag, a horrible grunting filled the air. For a moment, Melena thought it was Joe, enjoying all the disgusting sounds he could make, but just as she thought this, Hazel flew to her back and clung there, trembling. Melena’s eyes looked up and latched onto a sight that made her bones turn to jelly.
A great, brutish ogre stood before them, blinking his cloudy eyes. He had just emerged from around the giant boulder that Hazel had been perched atop, clearly attracted to their yells. He towered over them at ten feet, his feet the size of sleds. At the ends of his massive arms were dinner-plate sized hands with dirty fingers, gnarled and twisted, the nails chipped and splintered.
Melena sat crouched in a state of transfixed horror; she was unable to move, unable to yank her gaze from the ogre’s terrible face: a dripping snout for a nose, a mouth full of big, yellow teeth, tiny watery eyes and huge, fleshy ears.
The ogre twitched his fat, droopy lips and sniffed the air. He took a lumbering step toward them. Melena and Toad sat immobilized upon the rocky ground, their mouths open in silent screams.
The ogre grunted.
Melena shook like a twig.
As he took another step, his great, clumsy foot caught Toad’s knapsack, still lying in a heap, making it swing forward.
Out flew Ol’ Joe like a grinning missile. He landed with a clunk and rolled back across the sloped ground, coming to a stop before the ogre. The ogre looked down and cocked his head. Joe blinked his spinning, marble eyes, stared straight upward at the squinting ogre and opened his mouth wide:
O sweet, sweet Joanna
How torn my heart!
O sweet, sweet Joanna
Our kiss shall never part!
Joe sang in the most dazzling baritone Melena had ever heard. The sad ballad left his clay lips slowly and mournfully, as if the mug wasn’t the slightest bit concerned that a murderous ogre stood two feet away.
O sweet, sweet Joanna
How thine eyes mine do miss!
O sweet, sweet Joanna
Lushest green now turned to mist!
The ogre winced and squeezed his tiny eyes shut. He took a step backward and shook his head, making his huge ears flap against his skull. He didn’t like the noise, but didn’t want to leave his dinner, either. He seemed torn between wanting to get far away from the singing beer mug and wanting to reach Melena and Toad. In a sudden burst of understanding, Melena shouted at Toad, “SING!”
“What?” Toad’s eyes were popping.
“Sing!” Melena repeated and filling her lungs, she bellowed with Joe:
O sweet, sweet Joanna
How wicked the under-lord king!
O sweet, sweet Joanna
Who stole our cherished ring!
Two singing voices combined made the ogre snarl, slapping his great hands over his ears. His tiny eyes were screwed up in pain and frustration, but though he writhed, though he spitted and grunted, he did not leave.
O SWEET, SWEET JOANNA!
HOW TORN MY HEART!
Toad had joined them now; their voices reached a booming cacophony that echoed off the boulders. The ogre let out a deafening roar — Melena’s voice caught in her throat — but she continued singing the slow, sad song at the top of her voice.
The ogre stomped his ugly feet, making the ground shake. He kept trying to make wild swipes at Melena and Toad, but the moment he removed his hands from his ears, he let out a pained roar and slapped them back over them.
With tremendous vigor, Melena, Toad, and Joe filled the air with their ballad. Even Hazel let out a yowling wail that warbled along with the words.
O SWEET, SWEET JOANNA!
LUSHEST GREEN NOW TURNED TO MIST!
The ogre let out a shriek, turned, and ran back from where he had come, his tree-trunk legs rushing him away from their music, hands still clamped firm over his ears.
Melena and Toad stopped singing and stared after the retreating ogre. For a moment, they sat, limp with shock and then Toad began to laugh. He laughed so hard that he was soon hitting the ground with his fists. Melena couldn’t help herself. She started to laugh, too. Joe continued to sing in his low baritone until the song was finished. He blinked his marble eyes at them, grinned his toothy smile and fell into contented silence as if nothing odd had happened.
Toad picked up his knapsack while Melena carefully lifted Joe from the ground.
“He isn’t cracked, is he?” Toad asked, staring down at the mug in concern.
“I don’t think so,” said Melena. Then she did something that made Toad and Hazel stare in shock: she kissed Joe on the cheek.
“Thank you, Joe,” she said.
Joe giggled and batted his spinning eyes. Melena could have sworn he was blushing.