Toad was in a foul mood. The new found knowledge of their next ingredient had shaken him deeply. He slouched through Licklade’s quaint town square, throwing dirty glares at passerby who went about their errands — in Toad’s opinion — with obnoxious merriment. Though he tried to stop it, the drawing from All Things Potion kept flashing before his eyes. Needing something to shake the unease in his gut, Toad decided to track down Hazel. It took some time, but he eventually found the garden Melena had mentioned. But Hazel was nowhere to be seen. Standing amongst cabbages and tufty-leafed turnips, fat drops of rain splattered onto his nose. With a sharp scowl upward, Toad flipped up the collar of his coat, and dashed back to the Soggy Dog. The rain fell fast and hard and it did not take long before he was splashing through puddles, cold water soaking into his socks.
He shook his coat free of rain and looked around the Soggy Dog. The table Melena had occupied earlier was empty. Figuring she was upstairs, he took the steps two at a time and entered her room only to find her absent there as well.
“Hey, Joe, where’s Melena?” he asked the beer mug, who still sat upon Agatha’s dresser.
“I have not seen m’lady since she left for breakfast, Master Toad,” said Joe.
“She didn’t come back up here?”
Puzzled, Toad went back down the stairs and stood at the bar. “Have you seen that girl I was with this morning?” he asked the woman. “Always carrying ’round a book. Got a really long braid. Was sittin’ over there.” He pointed at the vacant table.
The woman paused in cleaning a stein long enough to glance at the table in the corner. “She walked out about an hour ago.”
Toad felt a flare of annoyance. What was she doing wandering off without him?
“Did she say where she was going?”
“No. But she left right after Milo did. That’s why I noticed.” The woman’s eyes suddenly misted over. “That man’s a looker.”
Toad froze. “Milo?”
The woman nodded.
“Just a fellow who appreciates good pies,” smiled the woman, picking up another glass to dry. “He comes in every couple of months and is off again. Doesn’t really mingle, Milo. The number of times I’ve tried to —”
“Where’s he live?”
“I don’t know,” the woman shrugged.
“What d’you mean, you don’t know!” Toad shouted, making the woman stare.
“’Oo talkin’ bou’ da bloke, Milo?” A toothless man at the bar, who had clearly been eavesdropping, leaned closer.
Toad spun around.
“You know where he lives?”
“Nah — bu’ I guess id’s in dem dere woods,” said the man, jutting a thumb over his shoulder. “Seen him come in an’ out buncha dimes.”
Toad dashed to the door before skidding to a halt. Changing his mind, he raced back upstairs and grabbed Joe, before barreling back down to the floor below. The woman and toothless man stared in silence as he blew past them and rushed out the door into the rain, nearly banging head first into Barney the chess player as he crossed the street.
“Stupid, stupid, stupid,” Toad growled under his breath, bowing his head low against the heavy rain. “When I get hold of her…”
“Are you upset, Master Toad?” Joe asked from inside Toad’s coat.
“Yeah, I’m mad! Flounces off without any warning the moment some blockhead named Milo strolls by.”
“That blockhead might truly be her brother,” Joe pointed out.
“I don’t care about that!” Toad fumed, stomping into a cold, muddy puddle, which only infuriated him further. “We gotta deadline! We don’t have time to track down every random Milo we see!”
By the time he came across the road that led into the woods, he was soaked to the skin and more sour than a pickle. Thankfully, the trees were so thick overhead that little rain fell through the leaves. On the other hand, it was so dark that he could barely see.
“Joe, can you do that light thing again?”
With a faint pop, a single glowing orb appeared over Toad’s head and he plowed onward down the road, peering about him. But the more he walked with no sight of her, the more his anger frothed until finally he filled his lungs—
“MELENA!!!!” he bellowed. Only his echoing voice answered him. Growling obscenities, he dug his watch from his pocket, one of his more successful thefts. He had been out in these dratted woods for hours and he hadn’t once seen anything that resembled a house. Where did this Milo live?
“Perhaps she has returned to the inn?” Joe mused.
Tired, freezing, and hungry, Toad agreed to head back. It was quite late when he finally stumbled into the Soggy Dog, feeling that the place was aptly named for blokes like him. With one swift look around the tables, he knew Melena was not present. He stomped up the stairs, leaving muddy pools of water in his wake, and flung open her door, ready to shout her dizzy.
But she wasn’t there.
Toad stood on the threshold of 4B, waterlogged and utterly bewildered. Where was she? For the first time since that afternoon, his rage turned to fear. Even if she had found her brother — and really, how likely was that? — she wouldn’t have left Toad. Not completely. She would have returned to tell him.
Toad couldn’t stand still. He spun on his heel and hurried back down the stairs. He’d walk through those woods all night if he had to.
Toad sneezed violently, and wondered dully if he was likely to catch his death. Toad used Joe’s orb to light the road through the trees which had now become so muddy from the torrential rain that his feet kept threatening to slide out from under him. Shivering violently, Toad walked and walked and walked, but he never once came upon a house or another human. The forest was empty in every aspect of the word and Toad couldn’t shake the growing unease that something had happened to her.
When dawn broke, so did the rain. Exhausted and numb to the bone, Toad collapsed against a thick elm and tried to think. Should he return to the Soggy Dog … Perhaps Melena had come back on her own after all? Should he talk to the constables? Would they even listen to a street urchin like him? Just as he decided that his only option was to check the inn once more — if she still wasn’t there, then he’d enlist help — he heard the creak of wagon wheels. Toad jumped to his feet and peered through the elm’s low-hanging branches.
In the early morning gloom of the forest, a covered wagon was slowly wheeling down the dirt road. It stopped. Toad couldn’t make out the man driving the mule, but he heard him crack the reins softly and the mule turned off the road, the wagon slipping between two thick cedars.
Toad didn’t know if the man in the wagon had anything to do with Melena or Milo, but it was his first sighting of anyone in the forest, so he hurried after it.
The wagon pulled up before a tiny, two-story house, squeezed between the trees. No wonder Toad had missed it. It was mossy and overgrown with vines threatening to cover its front. Toad waited, half-hidden behind a cluster of scraggly bushes. The man jumped down from the wagon and entered the house.
“What’s happening, Master Toad?” Joe asked. “Have you found our missing lady?”
“I don’t know…” Toad muttered. He groped inside his coat and pulled Joe out. “This might be where Milo lives. D’you think I should just knock? Ask him if he’s seen a girl wanderin’ around?”
“That would be logical,” Joe agreed.
A light flared inside the house. Toad put Joe back inside his coat, marched past the wagon, and climbed the short flight of steps. He could hear shuffling footsteps within the cabin, but no voices; when he knocked, the shuffling ceased abruptly.
A short moment later, the door opened and Toad was startled to see the same man he had bumped into when he’d left the Soggy Dog the day before. He hadn’t given him much notice then, but he was sure he was the same. Quite tall, blond, with a long, sharp nose and, as the barmaid had claimed, quite handsome. He was dressed in a black coat and was frowning at Toad.
“Yes?” he asked, rather brusquely.
Toad didn’t know how best to begin so he decided to get straight to it.
The man’s eyes widened slightly and then narrowed. “You’re Toad.”
“Yeah,” said Toad with a swooping sense of relief. If the bloke knew his name then Melena was here!
Milo stepped aside; Toad bounded forward, his anger and worry at Melena’s disappearance vanishing on the spot. The sitting room was small and had the stale smell of a place rarely used. He spun around, expecting Melena and Hazel to rush to him, greeting him.
“Where is she?” asked Toad.
“Upstairs. She wasn’t feeling well.”
There was something odd about the way Milo was looking at him … something almost appraising in his expression, as if he were sizing Toad up, and it immediately annoyed him. So this was Melena’s brother? Perhaps it was Milo’s gruff greeting or the tactless staring, but Toad didn’t feel much fondness for the man. He looked, as Bone would have put it, like a pompous prat.
“You goin’ somewhere?” asked Toad, wanting Milo’s eyes to focus on something else. Toad pointedly looked at the black suitcase beside the door. He hoped sincerely that Milo wasn’t planning on joining them. The idea of dragging around an older version of Melena was daunting, to say the least, and Milo looked like the sort of bloke who’d have plenty of opinions.
“Travel is good for catching up, don’t you think?” said Milo cheerfully and Toad felt himself grimace, because yes, of course, Melena had invited him. Milo didn’t seem to notice Toad’s displeasure. His eyes swept over Toad again, lingering on his dripping, mud-spattered clothes. “Were you out all night? You’ll catch a cold like that. I’ll make you a cup of tea.”
Toad was about to say “No thanks” and was mentally formulating possible arguments to convince Melena to leave Milo behind when there was a loud crash overhead. Toad’s head jerked upward.
“What was that?”
“My cat knocking something over. Here,” said Milo, pressing a cup into Toad’s hands.
“Hazel doesn’t like cats. Sorry, mate,” Toad said with a pained grimace. “It’s real nice of you to offer to come with us, but I don’t think things would work out with a cat trailin’ along.”
“Don’t be silly,” said Milo at once. “I won’t bring the cat.”
“Oh,” said Toad, crestfallen. “It’s just … we’ve got a lot of ground to cover and —”
“Didn’t you see my wagon?”
Toad glared down at the tea cup in his hands, cursing inwardly. Milo was already taking charge. He didn’t like that condescending smirk one bit; it reminded him too much of Bone’s leer. It was one thing to convince Melena to risk her life getting Owl’s ingredients when she had such a powerful reason to do it, but now that she’d found her long lost brother, would she still be so willing? With a few well chosen words, Melena would be putty in Milo’s hands, Toad was sure of it … though … could Toad rope Milo into the farce, too? If Toad knew one thing, it was that everyone wanted money. There was no reason why Owl’s ‘payment’ shouldn’t work just as well on Milo, and if Milo was game for finishing the job, then Melena would be, too.
So why did Toad’s gut twist with something that felt like envy when he looked back up at Milo, with his smooth hair and long legs and broad shoulders? Toad had been pushed aside more often than he’d ever admit back with the Ramblers. Always the kid in a horde of adults, always the runt, always too small, too slow, too stupid. “Go away, Toad.” He had a sudden vision of Milo and Melena laughing like bright starlings in the front of the wagon while he, Toad, sat hunched in the back, choking on dust kicked up by the wheels.
“I wanna talk to Melena.”
“She was fine when I last saw her.”
“It came on suddenly. Must have been something she ate,” said Milo. He put a hand on Toad’s shoulder, steering him toward the sofa. “Why don’t you have your tea and I’ll see how she’s doing? I’ll tell her you’re here.”
A fresh wave of burning annoyance rose within him, but as Toad allowed Milo to lead him to the couch there came an agonized cry from upstairs. Toad swung around, his face jerking upward, the cup shattering onto the floor. “What the —”
Toad was yanked backward, his arm in a sudden vice-like grip, twisted behind his back; something sharp dug into his side and he was mentally thrown back to that dark library with Cutter’s foul breath raking across his ear.
“Make a noise and I slip this between your ribs,” said Milo. “Understood?”
“You bas —”
Toad gasped as Milo pushed the knife deeper.
Biting his lip hard enough to taste blood, Toad nodded.
Toad did as he was told, eyes sweeping up the dark staircase as they passed, letting the sharp point of Milo’s knife prod him out the door, down the steps and toward the wagon where Milo unlocked a heavy bolt and swung open the door. He pushed Toad hard, making him lurch and sprawl inside.
“This is turning out to be quite the pay day for me,” said Milo, pleased. “Stay put while I fetch the other one.”
The wagon door shut on Toad, plunging him into darkness. That didn’t stop him from shouting every foul word he could think of, pounding and kicking upon the door, but the lock stayed secure.
It wasn’t long before Toad heard the sound of movement outside. Milo was returning. He was going to open the door. If Toad ran out as he did, he’d knock him flat.
Just as he was readying himself, a tiny square of wood was pulled away, revealing a peephole.
“Move to the back or I cut off her thumb.”
Grinding his teeth, Toad moved to the very back of the wagon. Milo’s eyes crinkled as he smirked; the door swung open again and Melena was pushed inside. Her knapsack was flung in after her and the wagon door was locked once more. Toad pulled Joe out of his coat and set him on the ground.
At once an orb flickered into existence. Toad leapt forward again, banging his shoulder against the wagon door, though it still did not budge. The wagon lurched and Toad quickly steadied himself. They were moving.
“Melena — Help me!” Toad grunted, pushing with all his might against the door. “Melena!”
Toad spun around. She sat hunched on the floor, clutching Hazel to her. Silent tears streamed down her cheeks.
If anything, the sight of a crying Melena made him madder. “I need your help, Melena! How far is the nearest city?”
“W-what?” she asked.
“He’s a Snatcher! He’ll be taking us to the nearest city.” At Melena’s confused stare, he added in mounting frustration, “Snatchers! Don’t you remember what I told you back when we met that fortuneteller — oh, forget it! I don’t have time to explain. Get up here and help me!”
Awkwardly, Melena got to her feet, Hazel still clutched in her arms. The moving wagon made her sway and Toad caught her before she fell.
“Melena …” In the orb’s light, Melena was pale, her eyes were pinpricks and she was trembling like a leaf caught in a high wind.
From the floor, Joe demanded, “Master Toad, what is this? Why are we here?”
“Melena’s brother’s a Snatcher.”
“He’s not my —” Melena’s words were cut off as she retched violently. Toad jumped backward. Without him holding her up, Melena’s legs buckled and she slid to the floor. Her head drooped to the side, her mouth slack, her gaze unfocused.
“Melena! Melena!” Toad sidestepped the pool of sick and shook her shoulders. “Come out of it! I need you!”
But she was too stupid on whatever Milo had given her. She was no help in her current state, and Toad didn’t have time to wait for her to snap out of it. They’d be sold by then. Toad watched her, the wagon wheels making the floorboards vibrate beneath his knees, as she muttered incoherently, still holding tightly to the lump in her arms.
“That’s it!” Toad shouted, leaping to his feet. “We’ll start a fire! He’ll have to stop and when he opens the door, we rush him!”
Melena looked up at him with bloodshot eyes.
“Why not?” Toad shouted, though she hadn’t spoken. “We’ve gotta get out of here! You don’t know. You don’t understand. Snatchers are the worst — the fire will work.”
More tears leaked out of Melena’s eyes. Toad ignored them; he squatted down and addressed Hazel directly.
“Hazel, you gotta start a fire. A great, big fire.”
Melena’s shaking arms tightened over Hazel.
“Hazel —” Toad growled.
“Master Toad, I don’t think our little Hazel can,” Joe cut in softly.
“What d’ya mean, she can’t? Hazel starts fires all the time — she’s a dragon!”
“She — can’t — Toad,” Melena choked.
A chill spread through him. It wasn’t like Hazel to be so quiet. To be so immobile. Toad suddenly didn’t want to know what was wrong with the dragon. He didn’t want to even look at her. Instead he pushed backwards, sitting with his back to them, gripping his hair.
They had to get out. They had to get out. If they couldn’t burn the wagon down, then maybe they could force the latch. He dug out his crude set of lock picks but they were no good against the bolt. He flung them down and looked wildly around for something to dig into the door jam — to force the door to open — but there was nothing within the wagon.
“I don’t know how to get out!”
“This does appear to be an awkward situation, Master Toad,” said Joe seriously from his place on the floor. “Perhaps now would be the logical time to ask Miss Agatha for help?”
“Ask who?” said Toad. “The spider? What good’s that gonna be? I don’t think Milo’s scared of spiders.”
“Slipping … Toad …” Melena whispered.
“Slip —” Toad’s mouth dropped. He grabbed Joe. “She can take us away? Just like she did in the room? She can do that to us, too?”
“Yes,” said Joe. “Though it would take time to build a large enough web for you to pass through…”
“But she can do it?”
Toad spun around, Joe still clutched in his hands, before his heart sank like a stone in a pond. “But she’s back at the inn.”
“She was at the inn,” Joe corrected. “When you fetched me from m’lady’s room earlier, Miss Agatha climbed onto your shirt.”
“My —” Toad froze on the spot, suddenly terrified that the spider had been crushed when Milo had manhandled him. The orb drifted low and Toad tentatively peered downward. After a close inspection, there, tucked under his shirt collar was Agatha, curled up tight.
“What do I do?” Toad whispered.
“You will need to wake her up, Master Toad.”
How do you wake up a spider? Toad gently prodded her round body with his finger.
“Er — ’scuse me. Agatha? Hello?”
Lazily, Agatha stretched out a long, striped leg before scuttling onto his finger.
“Er — Agatha? Not sure if you’ve noticed, but we’re in a … a bit of a tight spot.” Toad had to keep moving his hand to keep her in sight as she explored his knuckles. “And we’d very much like,” Toad continued after an encouraging smile from Joe, “for your assistance in getting out of here.”
Agatha paused on his thumb, black eyes glinting in the light, before leaping into the air like a diver off a high board and scurrying out of sight.
Toad’s heart clenched. She wasn’t going to help them.
“You may want to step aside, Master Toad.”
Toad looked up just in time to quickly sidestep out of the way as Agatha’s bright orange body shot downward on a gossamer strand. He watched in amazement as the spider spun a large, webbed archway that stretched from the ceiling to the floor. With each jerk of the wagon, Toad’s heart skittered in his chest. He wanted to shout at Agatha to hurry up — she had spent an exorbitant amount of time on the upper right-hand corner, twitching and tugging on the strands — but Toad bit down on his tongue.
A wheel dipped into a pothole, and Toad nearly fell on Melena. In the glow of Joe’s light, his gaze dropped to the lump in Melena’s arms and the hairs on his arms rose.
“The archway is finished,” Joe announced.
“What do we do?” asked Toad at once.
“Walk through it, but be sure to not catch on any of the strands, Master Toad. If they break, the transport won’t work.”
Toad swallowed. He put Joe back into his coat pocket and swung Melena’s knapsack over his shoulder. He heaved Melena to her feet. She wouldn’t remove her hands from Hazel, so he gripped her arms tightly to help her stay upright. Agatha waited patiently on a strand of her archway. It glimmered like frost under Joe’s light and was just wide enough for them if they ducked their heads and tucked in their elbows.
Toad took a deep breath, pulled Melena closer and together they stepped through.