Melena allowed herself to feel sorry for Toad for just a few minutes before getting back to business. He was going to find out what they were facing eventually, though she didn’t enjoy bursting his bubble. She scribbled down Blackens on her growing list and tapped her chin, thinking. The Blackens were giving her the most trouble. How in the world were they going to survive such freezing temperatures, especially in winter? They would need supplies, of that she was sure. Wool caps, leather gloves, thick socks, coats, scarves.
“You’ve been gone longer than usual, Milo. Want a cuppa?”
Melena’s head snapped upward. She twisted in her seat. A young man with windswept hair stood at the counter. He removed his black gloves and smiled at the woman.
“No thanks, but I wouldn’t say no to a slice of that apple pie,” he replied.
The woman beamed and bustled about as the man took a distant seat.
Melena’s heart thundered. He was young — no more than twenty. Melena quickly did the math. A seven year difference — that wasn’t far-fetched. At ten, Milo could have easily taken charge of the dangerous situation and hurried her from their burning home. He would have known the fire would kill them. He would have known how to get out.
“There you go,” said the woman, placing a slice of pie before him, a dollop of cream on top.
He gave the woman a warm smile of thanks and Melena’s heart nearly exploded. His hair was blond, like hers. They even had similar noses — long and straight.
Melena sat rooted in her chair, her mind whizzing. Should she talk to him? Should she dare ask him for his last name? If only the woman would say it!
He ate his pie in what felt like seconds and rose, swinging his long coat back over his shoulders and turning up the collar against the chill. Melena watched as he waved a goodbye to the woman as she wiped down the bar, and strode out the door.
In a flash, Melena was on her feet. She couldn’t dawdle now, wasting time questioning the woman. She snatched up her list, stuffed her book into her knapsack, swung it over one shoulder, and rushed out of the Soggy Dog. She spied the man’s retreating back easily and hurried after him. He rounded a corner and Melena sped up. She was running as she took it and nearly jumped out of her skin.
“Oh! Hazel!” Melena gasped, clutching her chest. Hazel swished her green tail, sweeping crumpled brown leaves, and yowled happily. “Come on —” She scooped up Hazel and rushed onward.
Milo walked steadily through the town, Melena far enough behind to keep him in view. He never once looked back, even when he left the cobbled streets for a dirt road. Melena hesitated as he walked under the canopy of a thick wood. Did he live there? she wondered, before hurrying after him.
He walked down the dirt road through the trees for so long that Melena was growing tired from carrying Hazel. She strongly considered shouting out to him and questioning him right then and there, when he stopped suddenly and looked about him. Without thinking, Melena ducked behind a wide oak tree and felt her face burn in embarrassment. What was she doing, hiding from him? If he’d seen her duck for cover just now, he must think her insane. But apparently, he hadn’t seen her or heard her. He stepped off the road and plowed into the trees. Melena scampered after him.
The trees were so thick and low and the sky so cloudy from threatening rain, that it was very dark in the woods. It was difficult to keep him in view with his black coat, but just when she was sure she had lost him, a light flared up ahead. Before her was a small cabin, squeezed between a grove of cedars. One window was lit, and as she watched so was another.
Why would he live so far from town? Now that she had come to a stop, she stood nervously outside the pool of light from the windows. What if she was wrong? What if he wasn’t her brother, just as all the other Milos she had tracked down in Hickory hadn’t been?
But she felt differently about this one, for some inexplicable reason. Her heart was swollen with a sureness — with a confidence — she had never felt before.
She took a great, shuddering breath. “Are you ready, Hazel?”
Hazel blinked. Melena squared her shoulders and walked up the front steps. She knocked on the door.
It opened rather quickly, much sooner than she had expected and his sudden appearance made her take a startled step back. He was much taller than she was.
“Yes?” he asked.
Melena stared at him. She wasn’t ready. She couldn’t ask him!
He frowned at her. “Do you want something?”
“Milo?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said slowly, clearly confused.
She swallowed with difficulty; her throat was as dry as parchment. “I’m Melena. Melena Snead. My brother’s been missing for ten years. His name is Milo.”
The man stilled as if he’d suddenly been turned to marble. His eyes were exactly like hers. The exact shade of blue.
“Melena?” he whispered.
“Yes!” she cried, tears welling. “Yes!”
“You — you found me!” Milo stammered. He looked utterly stunned. Dumbfounded, he actually took a staggered step back. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you — everywhere — and you — you found me!” His face broke into a radiant smile that took Melena’s breath away. Arms were suddenly wrapped around her; he smelled of sandalwood and lavender. Hazel squirmed between them and Milo quickly released her, holding her at arms length. “Come in here — let me get a look at you!”
Melena found herself steered into a bright sitting room.
“You look just as I thought you would!” said Milo and Melena blushed under his bright gaze.
“Sit! Sit! I was just making tea.” He pushed her toward the sofa and hurried to a side kitchen. He kept shooting looks back at her as if expecting her to vanish. “And your pet must have one, too,” Milo said, pulling cups from a shelf.
Melena was too numb with shock — too drunk with happiness — to argue that she’d had more than enough tea all ready. She sat on the couch, staring at him, following his every movement, memorizing every detail.
Melena nodded, her throbbing heart blocking her windpipe.
“I just — I just can’t believe it. Look at me! I’m in shock!” Milo laughed, holding out a hand that shook visibly. He picked up a tea tray and set it down on the coffee table before her. “I was starting to lose hope. I suppose we kept missing each other,” he added merrily, handing her a cup and laying one out for Hazel.
“It makes sense now,” said Melena, her own excitement making it hard to hold her own cup still. She had never been so happy. Never before had she felt such immeasurable joy. “I’ve been looking in Hickory and all this time you’ve been here in Licklade! Why did you leave Hickory?”
Why did you leave me?
Milo cradled the cup in his hands and sat down in the chair opposite her. Hazel sniffed the tea and lapped at it. Milo was silent for so long that Melena feared she had upset him.
“Was it — was it because of the fire?” she asked, quietly. “It must have been much harder for you. You — you probably remember it so vividly. I hardly remember a thing, but you … you would … Mom and Dad … dying …”
Milo looked pained, but he managed a smile and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees.
“I got … a little messed up,” he admitted softly. “I had to get away. Can you understand that? Can you forgive me … for that?”
“Of course!” Melena cried. “I don’t blame you. They took good care of me at St. Brenda’s.”
Milo looked relieved and nodded at her tea. “Too much sugar?”
“What?” Melena had forgotten all about her tea and quickly took a sip. “No — it’s perfect, thank you.”
Hazel had consumed her entire cup and was breathing deeply on Melena’s lap, fast asleep. Melena took another gulp of tea, more out of nervous energy than a desire for the drink. It was different from the tea at the Soggy Dog. There was something almost floral about it, though she couldn’t pinpoint what it was.
“But —” Melena gathered her courage to finally ask what she had always longed to “— but why didn’t you return to St. Brenda’s? I understand you needing to get away, but they would have told you that the Bells adopted me — they would have — they would —”
Why was she so tired? Why couldn’t she keep her eyes open? Milo blurred as he slipped out of focus and her cup of half-drunk tea tumbled from her limp hand.
Melena was aware of a steady ticking sound; a monotonous rhythm that put her in mind of a pendulum swinging back and forth. Back and forth. It was easier to listen to that steady ticking than open her eyes. But now that her mind was slowly grinding into action, a dull, aching throb began between her ears. With more effort than it should have taken, she pried her eyes open.
She was in a bed. A soft, warm bed. Curtains were drawn back from a small gilded window. It was very dark outside and she could hear the sound of rain pattering against the glass.
Melena sat up tenderly. Her very bones ached. With a start, she realized that Hazel was curled into a tight ball by her elbow, small chest rising and falling in slumber. The room was clear of clutter and a bed of glowing coals in the fireplace illuminated a stretch of floor. The ticking sound continued and Melena’s eyes searched out a clock, hanging on the opposite wall.
A door that she had not noticed clicked and swung open.
“Did you walk all the way here from Hickory?” Milo laughed, the sound musical to her ears. “You were practically dead on your feet.” He stepped into the room and placed something down on a nearby table. “Gotten dark in here. Looks like it’s going to be another rainy day in Licklade,” he added with another careless laugh that made Melena’s heart twang like an elastic band.
Melena watched him stride to the fireplace to add more logs to the coals. He then lit a cluster of lamps. When he stepped back to her, the room was full of dancing light. Melena felt the heat from the flames upon her cheeks, chasing the chill of the room away. Hazel shifted and slept on.
“There! Much better. Are you by chance hungry?” Milo hurriedly picked up the wooden tray he’d brought and held it out to her. “I didn’t know what you liked, so I fixed up some of everything.”
Though Melena had not been at all hungry, the moment she looked at the tray in his hands, she felt a ravenous lurch in her abdomen. Plump sausages, glazed carrots, crispy, fried potato cakes, hunks of cranberry-nut bread, spice-scented doughnuts covered in chocolate sauce.
She looked up, stunned.
“I like to cook,” Milo said with a small shrug. “Though to be honest, I bought most of it in town. Hope you won’t hold that against me.”
Milo placed the tray on her lap.
“Oh — and don’t forget this!” Milo lifted a pitcher and goblet from the tray. “I make my own raspberry tea — very refreshing.” He poured a shimmering red liquid from the pitcher.
Melena’s fingers shook slightly as she took the goblet.
“Thank you.” She was still reeling from finally finding her brother and did not know what to say. There was a painful yet wonderful ache in her chest.
“I have a few errands to run in town, so I’ll let you eat,” said Milo.
“You have to go?” said Melena, startled. She wanted to talk. She wanted to learn everything about him. “Now?”
“Eat and rest,” said Milo with his pleasant smile. “I’ll be back before you know it.”
“I’ll come with you — my friend is waiting for me in town.” Melena made to get out of bed; she had completely forgotten about Toad and her stomach twisted with guilt. “He’ll be furious when he realizes I left without telling him.”
For a moment, Melena thought something passed over Milo’s face at her words, but a second later, she was sure she had imagined it for he was smiling even more brightly than before.
“Tell me his name and where I can find him. I’ll let him know where you are.”
“Oh, would you?” said Melena, grateful. She felt that she was coming down with something, her headache growing more persistent, the idea of tromping around Licklade unpleasant. “We have rooms at the Soggy Dog. His name’s Toad — yes, really. He’s my age. Brown hair, stands on end like he’s been in a hurricane. Could you let him come here, too? It’s just … I agreed to help him with something … it’s a long story.”
“And I’ll be happy to hear it when I get back. I’ll find him,” said Milo. He gave her a cheerful nod, squeezed her shoulder, and left the room, closing the door behind him. A few moments later Melena heard the front door open and close.
Melena beamed at the crackling fireplace, her heart like a glowing ember in her chest. She had found her brother, she was tucked away in a warm bed with delicious food, and Toad would soon be joining her. She would still help Toad find the potion ingredients for Mr. Owl — a promise was a promise after all — but he would understand her taking a short break from their travels. It had been ten years since she had last seen Milo. She wouldn’t be able to just walk away again so soon. Toad would understand that.
Not bothering with a fork, Melena swallowed a potato cake whole.
Melena woke to find the wooden tray that she had placed on the table beside the bed still there. It was as dark as ebony outside the window and the rain sounded heavy upon the roof. She wondered, blearily, if Milo had returned with Toad yet, before helping herself to a few of the doughnuts she had not finished.
It was odd how very hungry she was. Hazel had finally awoken, and blinking sleepily, she sniffed the doughnut in Melena’s hand. Melena passed her a sausage.
Tired of lying in bed, Melena thought she’d explore the house while she waited for Milo and Toad to return, but the moment her feet touched the floor, her head spun, and her eyes drooped. Her energy vanished with the speed of air escaping a balloon. Melena sat down heavily on the bed, not understanding how she could be so tired after so many hours of sleep … or had she only slept for a few minutes? It was hard to tell.
Even Hazel had abandoned the last of her sausage and was snoring softly.
But I can’t be sleepy, Melena thought dully, rubbing her forehead. Her head felt like it’d been stuffed with wool. I just woke up.
But had she? What time was it? She tried to look at the clock, but her eyes were so unfocused that its face was nothing more than a blurred circle. She was just so tired … a little sleep couldn’t hurt … she’d just rest … a little longer…
Melena opened her eyes to weak sunlight. The pulsing beneath her skull was reduced to a dull ache, but her vision was worse than ever, as if a film lay over her eyes. Melena rubbed them roughly. Her bleary gaze landed upon the wooden tray. She rose automatically to retrieve it and stumbled. She felt terrible. Her limbs wouldn’t stop trembling. Her throat seared as if she had swallowed fire.
With heavy, awkward fingers, Melena grabbed a slice of cranberry-nut bread and tore at it feverishly. Her hunger was overpowering. Stuffing her mouth and filling her goblet with cool raspberry tea, she half turned and spotted Hazel curled up among the blankets.
She was still asleep.
“’azel,” Melena said through her mouthful, “’ake up.”
Hazel didn’t move.
Melena, holding her goblet in one hand and the bread in the other, slowly shuffled to the bed, swaying like a drunkard. She kept blinking her eyes hard to clear the annoying film. What was wrong with her? She swallowed roughly.
“Hazel. Wake up.” Her voice came out as a rasp.
With Melena’s prodding finger, Hazel opened her eyes.
“Ha — Hazel?”
Hazel’s eyes were pale, a foggy gray instead of bright green. Her scales were dull and cracked, the edges a sickly white.
Hazel stared up at Melena morosely and yowled softly.
The cotton that filled Melena’s brain vanished in an instant. She looked down at the goblet of shimmering tea and the hunk of bread, clutched in her quivering hands.
Slowly, she raised the bread to her parched lips and took a tenuous bite. Though the urge to swallow was overwhelming, she chewed and let the flavored dough slide over her tongue, tasting it. The more she chewed, the more pronounced the astringent bitterness became.
Icy chills ran down her back, making the hairs on her neck stand on end. With a start, she realized she was shaking as violently as if she had swum across a frozen pond.
Milo was poisoning them.