Agatha’s web worked just as well as the first time. They emerged in a thick patch of frigid mist and Toad immediately crossed his arms against the chill. In the distance, he could see the blurred dark shapes of pitched roofs and spires up ahead.
He turned to Melena, his teeth beginning to chatter. “Fancy we get some of those sweaters?”
Toad had never seen snow and the city of East-of-Burg looked like it had been dusted with powdered sugar. The bricked streets were nearly as bustling as Hickory with buggies and carts, pedestrians hailing each other from across the road. Toad’s chest flooded with nostalgia. He missed Hickory. The clattering, the buzz, the energy. They passed a few people taking their Spit-Fires (dressed in cozy looking sweaters) on walks. Hazel snorted at the sight. The inhabitants of East-of-Burg were dressed far warmer than Toad or Melena in fur-lined coats, wool hats and high boots. Shivering, Toad eyed them with envy, feeling that his coat, which had always managed just fine in the cool Hickory nights, was criminally threadbare.
Melena quickly spotted a clothing shop squeezed between a barber’s and a ratty looking bookshop.
Hazel wasn’t allowed inside the clothing store (even though he couldn’t read the words on the sign nailed to the door, the large X over a stenciled dragon made it clear enough) and he waited with the dragon outside under a glowing lamppost while Melena acquired their new assortment of clothing. The moment she returned back onto the street, loaded down with parcels, Toad pulled the new thick, woolly sweater Melena passed him over his head. They stopped by three more shops, even one that made the miniature fire-proof sweaters for Spit-Fires, before Melena deemed them well enough prepared. They then hurried to the train station. But after a short conversation at the ticket booth, they discovered the train to the Blackens wouldn’t depart until tomorrow at six in the morning.
Shouldering their belongings, they trooped back out of the station and rented a room for the night at the cheapest hotel they could find, which happened to be directly over a stretch of tracks. They stuffed all the new garments into their knapsacks — Melena had bought Toad a new one. Toad couldn’t imagine how they would need even half of what Melena had bought. They ate some of the cauliflower cheese sandwiches Izzie had packed them and Melena, after a spell of indecision, fed three silvertons into an ancient gas heater.
Hazel didn’t like the new sweater Melena had bought her. Toad had been highly entertained (and slightly surprised) to watch Melena wrestle with the dragon for a good ten minutes before the checkered sweater was in place. Hazel had always been well behaved with Melena, but apparently she’d never attempted to put a sweater on her.
“Hazel!” Melena’s scold was like a whip. Hazel froze in her attempt to shred the sweater to pieces and the dragon slunk off under one of the beds to — Toad was sure — chew up her new garment in peace.
Melena wound a battered looking alarm clock Toad had found in the depths of a dusty wardrobe, and they turned in, shivering, despite the efforts of the groaning heater in the corner. Their sleep was splintered by a periodic sharp whistle and the roar of pistons as a train barreled under their window, making the room shake, showering them with bits of plaster.
They were relieved when the alarm blared at five in the morning. They gathered their things (Melena retrieved the sweater Hazel had successfully removed from under the bed and spent another ten minutes wrestling it back on), and hurried into the frigid morning. It was still dark out and Toad nearly cracked a hip slipping on a patch of ice outside the hotel’s door. After snatching up two blisteringly hot meat pasties from a blue-jawed cart vendor for a hasty breakfast, they entered the train station to find it just as busy in the early morning as it had been late yesterday evening.
Melena payed for two one-way tickets — Toad couldn’t help noticing how light her money bag was — and they rushed to the correct platform, weaving their way through the crowd to where a shiny black train waited, issuing copious amounts of steam.
“East-of-Burg to Blackens Station!” a man in a spiffy red uniform shouted, swinging a large bronze bell. “Loading! East-of-Burg to Blackens Station!”
Hazel wound up on Toad’s back (she was furious with Melena) to keep from getting stepped on. They showed their tickets to another red uniformed man and awkwardly boarded the train just as a loud, sharp whistle rent the air.
“Well then,” Melena puffed, trying to move out of the way for more passengers to board, “let’s find seats.”
Slowly and with many ‘’scuse us’s and ‘pardon me’s, they inched down the train, peering into compartments for a vacant one.
“Blimey,” Toad grumbled, when they’d finally managed to track down an empty compartment. “I didn’t know the Blackens were such a hot spot.”
“They aren’t,” said Melena, looking out the window as the train lurched into action, the platform speeding out of sight. “It’s the least inhabited area in Calendula.”
“So why’s the train packed?” Toad asked crossly.
“Because it’s small. Probably the smallest one in East-of-Burg. No reason to use one of the larger trains when it would be only half-full.”
They settled down on the cushioned seats. Hazel jumped down from Toad’s shoulders onto the seat by the window and stood on her hind-legs, watching the scenery fly past. A muffled sound issued from Toad’s new knapsack and he rooted around in it for Joe.
The mug took a great gasp of air as if emerging from the depths of a lake. He turned his beady eyes crossly to Toad.
“Ol’ Joe hopes Master Toad will pardon him for speaking out — Joe does not mean to offend,” though his tone implied otherwise, “but I do not appreciate being buried in your laundry.”
“Sorry, Joe,” said Toad.
When it was light enough to see outside their window, they had left East-of-Burg’s smoke-stacks and moved onto frost-covered fields that sparkled like diamonds in the weak sunlight. The ever changing scenery kept them entertained — neither had ever been on a train before — but eventually, Melena pulled out All Things Potion and Toad, wanting to stretch his legs, put Joe into his coat pocket and ventured into the corridor. Hazel jumped down from her seat and followed Toad without a backwards glance at Melena; Toad bit down on his tongue to keep from snickering.
As he explored the train, many passengers (mainly women and young girls) cooed over Hazel in her ‘wee jumper’, finally causing Toad to forcibly lift the dragon out of the arms of a woman who looked like she had no intention of letting Hazel go any time soon. By the time they’d walked the length of the train and swiftly pinched a few miniature tarts from an unattended tea trolley, the windows had blurred white with falling snow. Toad’s heart gave a great leap of excitement. He scooped up Hazel and rushed back to their carriage.
“Melena, did you see? It’s snow—” As he bounded into their compartment, his words were cut off as swiftly as the swipe of a knife.
Melena looked at him, beaming. “Isn’t it gorgeous!” she said, but Toad’s eyes were locked on the man sitting opposite her. “Oh,” she said noticing where Toad was staring. “Toad, this is Mr. Cutter.”
Cutter’s smile was cheeky; he wiggled his fingers in greeting.
Toad felt winded, as if the vibrating floor had disappeared beneath his feet.
How in the blazes —
They had lost Cutter! There was no way he could have tracked them to and from the Shards! How was he sitting on the very same train as them, speeding to the Blackens?
“Hi,” Toad grunted, unsmiling.
“You two’ve had quite the road trip,” said Cutter happily, lounging in Toad’s seat. A toothpick was between his teeth. “Your friend was just telling me, coming all the way from Hickory. Visiting family?”
“Just sightseeing,” said Melena.
Toad didn’t miss the supercilious curve of Cutter’s lips. “Long way to sightsee,” he said lightly, hooded eyes shifting to Toad.
Just then a man in a black and white uniform yelled from down the passageway, “Last call for the dining car!”
“Whoops, don’t want to miss that!” said Cutter. He rose and readjusted his coat. “Best be careful in these parts,” he said with a farewell tip of his low-brimmed hat. “This is a dangerous county for city dwellers.”
Toad ground his teeth. How dare Cutter. How dare he lounge about and ooze his stink all over the place.
Cutter’s tongue moved the toothpick to the other corner of his mouth, smile sharpening as he pushed past Toad, their shoulders banging, making Hazel hiss in annoyance. Toad waited until Cutter had disappeared out of sight down the passageway, before he slid the door shut and rounded on Melena, Hazel jumping down from his arms.
“What did he say to you?”
Melena blinked in surprise at Toad’s harsh tone.
“Nothing. Just chatting.”
“Chatting about what?” he demanded.
“Nothing,” Melena repeated, growing annoyed. “He was passing by and asked me if I had a pen. Why does it matter?”
Toad flopped into his seat, relief taking the place of some of the worry churning in his gut. Cutter hadn’t told Melena who he was. Toad was sure the murderous scum had slipped into their compartment just to show Toad how easily he could do it; he’d probably been lurking in the passageway, waiting for Toad to leave. Toad was unnerved by Cutter’s tracking skills, but more than anything, Toad was unnerved by Cutter’s dedication to the task. Toad had thought that Cutter would give up following them after they vanished from Licklade, thanks to Agatha’s web trick, and that he’d head back to Hickory, but instead Cutter had moved on to East-of-Burg, waiting at the only train station that would take them to the Blackens. Toad chewed on the inside of his cheek, staring out of the snowy window, trying to think of some way to dodge Cutter. Suddenly Melena said in low voice, “He wasn’t another Snatcher, was he?”
Toad turned to her. She looked so serious and solemn that Toad didn’t even consider enforcing the idea. “No. He just took me by surprise is all. But … he gave me a bad feeling. I wouldn’t chitchat with him anymore.”
Melena looked a bit thrown by this, but thankfully, chose not to argue.
Onward the train plunged, the snow growing so thick that it was impossible to see through the window. Toad didn’t venture back out of the compartment again, even as Hazel grumbled, scratching at the glass door in boredom. Cutter never returned, Toad didn’t see him pass by once, but that didn’t soothe Toad’s nerves. He’d made his point. He’d follow them ’til the end, and whether or not Cutter would attempt to take the ingredients to Owl himself, after doing away with them, was a matter that Toad would have to face when the time came.
As the luggage rack over their heads rattled, Toad considered telling Melena the truth about all of it: Owl, the payment, Cutter. He’d told so many lies. Heaping, stinking, mounds of lies. They’d been through so much — gone so far — that he couldn’t believe Melena would abandon him to search for the Mirg water and moonflower on his own, as he’d believed so long ago. But something kept him mute, teeth chewing pensively on the inside of his cheek and with a jarring start, Toad realized what it was: disappointment. He didn’t want Melena to be disappointed in him.
So many people had shaken their heads in disappointment over the years: Jack, Wilson, Lynch. He didn’t want Melena to do the same — the very thought made his chest constrict. So he hitched on a grin and tried to help Melena work through the crossword in a discarded copy of the paper, though the uneasy feeling that he was, once again, making the wrong choice, did not leave.
When it grew dark outside their window, Melena suggested they get changed. It was awkward in their small compartment but they managed to put on all the garments Melena had purchased.
And Toad felt ridiculous.
With five sweaters, a new beaver coat, gloves, two pairs of socks, flannel-lined pants, a thick, woolen scarf wrapped three times around his neck and a rabbit fur hat, he was sweltering. He felt awkward and stupid, like a blown-up version of himself; he couldn’t keep his arms down by his sides. The only consolation was that Melena looked just the same.
The train began to slow and Toad peered out the window, but it was so dark he couldn’t make out anything. Hazel, still in her checkered sweater, regardless of her numerous attempts otherwise, allowed Melena to pick her up. With a long squeal of brakes and a lurch, the train stopped and finally Toad could make out lights outside the window, blurred by swiftly falling snow.
“Here we go,” said Melena with nervous excitement.
If maneuvering down the narrow train with just their bulging knapsacks had been tedious it was nothing to trying to walk with so many garments layered one on top of the other. His rabbit-fur hat kept slipping down over his eyes and just as he was about to snatch it and the stupid scarf off, just to be able to breathe, the train’s doors slid open and a blast of cold unlike anything Toad had ever felt ripped through him. Stunned speechless, Toad stumbled onto the platform as passengers around him tried to exit the train. Wind roared in his ears. Snow blinded him. Hazel shrieked. Turning, Toad spotted her green pointed face peering over the top button of Melena’s coat which she had just scampered inside for sanctuary. It was clear to Toad that he in fact did not have enough sweaters on and needed at least half a dozen more. He gripped his hat to keep the vicious wind from blowing it straight off. How anyone could function in such weather dumbfounded him.
Passengers all around them were bent double against the furious blizzard, hurrying on their way. To where, Toad had no idea.
“We’ve gotta get under some cover!” he shouted into Melena’s ear. “An inn or something!”
“I’ll ask someone!” Melena roared back.
She quickly crossed the platform where a man in a thick beaver-skinned coat holding a clipboard stood. After a swift conversation, Melena hurried back to him.
“There’s a tavern across the road,” she told him.
“That road!” Melena pointed and through squinted eyes Toad could just make out the flickering of lights through the whipping snow.
As quickly as they could, they trudged through snow so thick they sunk up to their knees. At least the front steps of the tavern had been shoveled clear, but snow was quickly mounding up again.
“Blimey,” Toad whispered fervently, when they’d finally stepped into the warmth of the building. “Let’s stay in here forever.”
The little he could see of Melena’s pink face — the part that wasn’t covered in scarf and hat — scowled.
Half a dozen tables were occupied by people who seemed twice the size of any normal human. But after a second glance, Toad realized their size was due (like them) to multiple layers of clothing and thick, bristly coats that looked like they belonged to bears.
Toad shuffled over to a table while Melena went to the bar to order food and see about lodging. One thing was for sure, they wouldn’t be getting any water from any spring in a blizzard.
“The proprietor says the storm should blow over tonight,” said Melena, taking a seat opposite him. “But it looks like it might be harder to get to the springs than I’d thought. When I brought it up, I thought she might slap me.”
Toad was startled. When Izzie had said the Springs of Mirg were out of bounds, he’d thought she’d been exaggerating. He had only jokingly mentioned the idea of walking there on their own. But as if to confirm Izzie’s remarks, the heavy-set woman from the bar strode over to their table and put down their mutton stew with more force than necessary, her glare furious.
“We’re not gonna walk there, are we? I was kidding when I said that!” He shot a horrified glance out the window where the whistling storm raged. “We’d freeze in seconds!”
“Someone might be willing to take us partway,” said Melena.
But as it turned out, none of the burly bear men warming themselves over huge tankards of drink and stew had any interest whatsoever in taking them, partway or not. The mere mention of the springs set many of their hackles rising, brusquely turning their backs against Toad and Melena, stating emphatically that the springs were suicide and that they wouldn’t be caught dead there. “And neither should you, you stupid kids,” one grunted. After they had questioned everyone in the tavern to no avail, they ordered themselves some hot tea (mostly to appease the scowling barmaid) and returned to their table.
“It’s because of the Slinkwings, isn’t it?” said Toad darkly. “That’s why everyone’s so scared.”
Melena nodded. “My book says the Springs of Mirg is their nesting ground, but really,” she said, growing impatient, “they swim all over the Blackens. It’s like being scared of a shark.”
“A shark that can breathe fire,” Toad corrected dully. “That also happens to be, what? Thirty feet long?”
Melena pursed her lips. “It’s not as if we’re asking for them to take us to the springs. Just part way will do, just enough to —”
“Well, none of these whelps is gonna do it,” Toad grumbled. “Bunch of daisies,” he spat, making a gruff-looking man pause in drinking and turn to glare at Toad.
“I don’t think getting into a fight will help our cause,” said Melena quickly.
“It’d make me feel better.”
“We’ll find a way, Toad,” said Melena, acting as if she hadn’t heard him. She dug out her map, laying it between them. Toad’s eyes immediately zeroed in on the all ice peninsula known as Mirg. “We can get to the springs by land or by water. I assumed land travel would be easier than asking for someone to sail us through dragon-infested waters, but there is still that option. And once we’ve gotten the water —”
“If we get the water, you mean,” said Toad moodily.
“Once we’ve gotten the water,” Melen plowed on relentlessly, “it’s off to Piddleton and then Hickory.”
“But no one’s gonna take us!” Toad exploded.
A wheezing laugh came up through the table, making Toad and Melena pause. Toad reached down and pulled Joe from his knapsack. The mug was practically in tears with silent laughter.
“What’s so funny, Joe?” said Toad.
“Master Toad is so forgetful!” said Joe, shaking with merriment.
“We didn’t forget anything,” Toad argued.
“But, Master, you have! You forgot me!”
“What the dung are you talking about?!” Toad flared, growing increasingly aggravated. “You’re right here!”
Joe laughed louder, making the gruff man turn again, but Melena leaned forward and said eagerly, “Joe, do you know how to get to the springs?”
Toad looked at her, startled. Joe blinked his marble eyes and sighed in a revolting coo, “Sweet damsel has not forgotten Ol’ Joe!”
“You know how to get to the springs?” Toad said, indignant. “Why didn’t you say something?”
“Because it was too much fun watching us squirm,” said Melena dryly.
Joe had the grace to look ashamed.
“Well, stop biting your tongue and tell us!” said Toad as the door of the tavern opened, sending snow rushing three feet into the room.
“Ol’ Joe cannot lead Master Toad to the springs you so desire, but he does know of the man who shall.”
“You know someone who will take us to the springs? Really?”
“Aye, Master Toad.” Joe’s eyes glittered.
“Who?” asked Melena, looking suddenly wary.
“The one who can take sweet lady and Master to the heart of Mirg? Why, none other than the bold and powerful, the great and wicked Dragon Hunter — Horace the Horrid! And how luck shines upon lord and lady, for his men have just arrived.”