THADDEUS CANE knew he was still in the United States; he knew this as a fact with his heart and his mind. But the landscape he had been traveling through the last few days seemed intent on convincing him he’d been dropped into a magical world. Which made sense, seeing as how he reached this far point by stepping through a magical doorway conjured up in the wall of his basement.
They were currently crossing a wide plain, somewhere far removed from the town of Superstition. The grass was as high as his hips, and he ran his hands over the tops that bristled with seeds. Off in the distance, beyond a line of trees standing close together, a mountain range rose from the flatland, its peaks hidden by clouds. Their small but determined group of six was led by Thaddeus’s father, Nathan, and included their neighbor—and, Thaddeus liked to think, his boyfriend, although neither of them had said the word yet—a handsome garden gnome named Teofil, as well as Teofil’s mother, Miriam, and his brother and sister, Fetter and Astrid. They had no definite destination save for the mountain range in the distance. They were hiking across the land in search of signs of the Bearagon—a vicious beast that was a combination wolf, bear, and dragon—in hope it might lead them to the dragon that was, in actuality, Thaddeus’s mother, Claire. The farther they traveled, the less Thaddeus felt like he was, to borrow a famous movie line, “still in Kansas.”
He had a feeling he’d have to hitch a ride home once this quest was completed. That, or ride on the back of a dragon, which might be entirely possible.
“Doing all right?” Teofil asked.
Thaddeus looked over his shoulder and into Teofil’s blue eyes. “I am. How about you?”
Teofil smiled and lowered his voice to whisper, “I like my view.” Teofil dropped his gaze to Thaddeus’s butt, then looked up at him again, grinning.
Heat rushed to Thaddeus’s face and dropped down through his body, spreading out through his limbs and into his fingers and toes. Teofil seemed to have that effect on him, all of him, and it both scared and excited Thaddeus.
“Oh, well…,” Thaddeus managed to say, before his foot caught on a rock, and he fell forward onto the path forged through the grass by his father. He felt a sharp pain in the heel of his left hand as it scraped along another rock hidden among the stalks, and then a numbness. A gasp of surprise rushed out of him, and he lay still a moment, taking stock.
What just happened?
“Thaddeus!” His father knelt beside him. “Are you hurt?”
Thaddeus pushed up to his knees, hissing at the pain in his hand, and the tug of the stitches in his leg, a result of his run-in with the Bearagon a few weeks before. He looked at his left palm and winced at the raw, red scrapes that dotted his palm, which had joined the scratches he’d received while yanking the drachen narcosis out of the ground in Leopold’s yard. As he watched, blood welled up within the injuries, bright red against his pale skin.
“Dammit, you’re bleeding,” Nathan said, shrugging out of his backpack. “I’ve got a first aid kit in here somewhere.”
Miriam stepped up beside Thaddeus and put a hand on his back. “Thaddeus, hold your hand still now. Try not to let the blood drip onto the ground.”
Thaddeus held his left wrist with his right hand and looked up at Teofil’s mother. “Why not?”
“The scent of blood is an easy tracker,” Miriam explained. “If we’re being followed, it would be just like planting a sign with an arrow that points in the direction we’re walking. Hold still now, dear.”
As she spoke Miriam rummaged through the pack she carried slung over one shoulder and now produced a handful of leaves. She added a swipe of some thick, wet, brown glop to the leaves and then firmly pressed the mixture against Thaddeus’s injuries. Stinging pain seared Thaddeus’s palm, and he sucked in a hissing breath as tears flooded his eyes.
“It hurts,” he said.
“Aye, that it will, dear,” Miriam assured him. “That means it’s getting to work chewing up all the nasty germs trying to get inside you.”
“Must be a hell of a lot of them,” Thaddeus grumbled as the sensation intensified. “Really smarts.”
“What is that you’re using, Miriam?” Nathan asked as he finally pulled the first aid kit out of his backpack.
“Oh, just some plantain leaves mixed in with a bit of rose water, a touch of raw honey, and some comfrey leaf oil.” She smiled at them each in turn. “When you’ve got as many children under your belt as I have, you pretty much keep things like this in constant supply.”
To distract himself from the sting of the natural antiseptic mixture Miriam still held pressed against his wounds, Thaddeus asked, “How many children do you have?” He looked apologetically up at Teofil, then back at Miriam. “Sorry, I’ve lost count.”
Miriam smiled. “No worries, dear. I lose track of them on occasion myself. I have been fortunate enough to have fourteen healthy, happy, beautiful children. You know Teofil, of course, and Fetter and Astrid here,” she said, nodding to each of the gnomes in turn. “After that there’s Seamus, River, Meadow, Rose, Violet, Robin, Martin, May, Stone, Iris, and young Flora.” She looked around at her three children. “Did I remember everyone?”
Astrid nodded. “All of them, Mum. And in order. Much better than usual.”
“Thank you, dear,” Miriam said, then gently lifted a corner of the leaves to peek at Thaddeus’s hand. “The wounds look good, but we’ll need to keep the leaves and mixture on them for a while yet.”
“I’ve got tape here,” Nathan said, kneeling beside Thaddeus and opening the first aid kit. “How about your leg? Did you hurt that?”
Thaddeus shook his head. “No. Just pulled the stitches a bit when I fell, but it doesn’t hurt as bad anymore.” Thaddeus smiled up at Teofil. “Just clumsy me, having to make us stop.”
“We were due for a break anyway,” Nathan said, wrapping a long strand of medical tape around Thaddeus’s hand.
They all settled on the ground and sipped from waterskins or canteens. Teofil sat beside Thaddeus and, after looking around to make sure no one else was listening, leaned in to whisper, “Sorry, I shouldn’t have said that to you about liking the view.”
Thaddeus blushed, again, and darted a glance at Teofil, whose expression was so serious he managed to give him a longer look. “Why do you say that?”
Teofil shrugged. “It flustered you and made you trip and fall. I should have kept my thoughts to myself.”
“I’m glad you said it,” Thaddeus assured him. “I just…. No one’s ever said that kind of stuff to me before. It’s tough to believe that someone could feel that way about me.”
“I can’t believe no one has ever said something like that to you before,” Teofil said. “You’re so handsome and caring and brave.”
“Not as brave as you,” Thaddeus countered. “Leaving your family to live on your own with a wizard and tend to his garden without knowing why.”
“I guess we’re just brave enough to be drawn together,” Teofil said.
“I guess so.”
Their gazes met and locked, and Thaddeus had to remind himself to breathe.
“How’s your hand?” his father asked, pulling Thaddeus’s attention away from Teofil.
Thaddeus winced as he flexed the fingers. “It’s okay. Hurts, but not like it did when I first tripped.”
“Your leg okay too? No stitches pulled out?” Nathan continued.
“My leg’s fine,” Thaddeus replied. “I’m okay, Dad.”
“Think you’ll be ready to move on soon?” Nathan looked out across the grassy plain toward the thick line of trees. “I’d like to get closer to the tree line by nightfall.”
“We’re going to camp in the woods?” Thaddeus asked, more than a little nervous. The Bearagon had stalked him through the woods by his house before it had attacked them at Leopold’s house.
“Just outside of it, if we can,” Nathan replied.
“That’s the Lost Forest,” Fetter said from where he sat a few feet away. He had thick dark hair pulled back into a ponytail and a neatly trimmed dark beard. He was Teofil’s older brother, but shorter than his sibling by at least a foot. With a broad chest and thick, strong legs, Fetter was an imposing powerhouse of a gnome.
“Lots of travelers get lost in there,” he continued. “That’s why they call it that.”
“Stop telling stories,” Astrid scolded him and let out a heavy sigh. She turned to look at Thaddeus and Nathan, her blue eyes a shade darker than Teofil’s and her dark blonde hair pulled back into a single braid that hung halfway down her back. She was broad across the shoulders and strong as well, and her nose was crooked in two spots, which indicated to Thaddeus it had been broken at least twice in the past.
“That’s not why they call it the Lost Forest,” Astrid continued, and Fetter grinned and shrugged one big shoulder. “They call it the Lost Forest because legend tells of a place hidden deep within its borders that contains a powerful magic.”
“Really?” Thaddeus asked. “What kind of place? A temple or something?”
Astrid shook her head. “Nothing as fancy as that. None have seen it since the day it was built, but many know the stories.”
“Oh, Astrid,” Miriam said, standing behind her with her hands on her hips. “Are you on about that story again? I swear, you’re going to start saying it in your sleep, you’ve been talking about it so much lately.”
“The fairies told me about it, Mum,” Astrid replied. “It’s all true.”
Thaddeus thought about the legend and wondered how many more of them he had yet to learn. Maybe the Superstition town library had a secret room of big, dusty books filled with tales of history and heroism within the magic community, a room that was watched over by Vivienne. Thoughts of the stern but kind red-haired witch who ran the Superstition library made Thaddeus feel a bit homesick, and he wondered how she was doing. Vivienne, Leopold, and Teofil’s father, Rudyard, had agreed to remain back in Superstition and work on uncovering the assumed identities of Isadora and her supporters, then meet up with them once they’d reached the mountains. He hoped they were having better luck than him.
“Tell the story as we walk,” Nathan said and picked up his backpack. “We’re losing daylight.”
They gathered their items and set off again, Astrid walking between Teofil and Thaddeus as she told the story of the Lost Forest. Though the day was sunny, and a warm breeze stirred the grass around them, Thaddeus felt a chill as Astrid related the tale. Suddenly, the rustling of the grasses started to sound like whispers, and the wind felt like the breath of Death itself.
“The Lost Forest was once filled with magical beings,” Astrid explained. “Gnomes, fairies, elves, dwarves, witches, wizards, all of them living together, all out of sight of men. Even ogres and trolls and goblins, on occasion, though they’re mostly bad and fond of eating others. Anyway, there came a great sickness that swept across the land. It infected those who lived in the forest and surrounding country, and it was quite deadly. Many died from it, and those who cared for their loved ones who were first infected caught it as well, until only a handful of survivors remained.”
“How awful,” Thaddeus said, his gaze cast down to keep a watch out for rocks.
“They never found out where it originated,” Astrid continued. “And so they buried all the bodies in a long pit, somewhere deep inside the forest. After many years, the infected blood from all of those bodies found its way into the soil and, finally, the roots of the trees around the grave. Those trees grew darker and twisted, and bore fruit that tasted vile and sour. The foul fruit attracted evil into the forest, and as time went on, the magical creatures who had survived the sickness left the forest and the darker beings took over. The gravesite has since been lost, and any who have gone in search of it have never returned.”
“Wow,” Thaddeus whispered. “That’s quite a story. And we have to go through this forest?”
“Just keep in mind that’s what it is,” Nathan said. “A story.”
“Suit yourself,” Astrid said. “But I’ve heard the story from more than one source.”
“You forgot the best part,” Fetter piped up.
“What do you mean?” Astrid asked, her voice edged with annoyance.
“About the well,” Fetter said.
Astrid sighed, and Thaddeus glanced back in time to see her roll her eyes. “You and that ridiculous well,” Astrid said.
“It’s the best part of the story!” Fetter nearly shouted.
“Keep your voices down, both of you,” Miriam scolded them gently. They all fell silent a moment, then Miriam said, “And you did leave out that part, Astrid.”
“See?” Fetter immediately said. “I told you!”
“Shut up!” Astrid snapped.
“Oh, for the love of geranium, both of you keep still!” Miriam said. She marched up to get between Astrid and Thaddeus and lowered her voice as she told the part of the story Astrid had skipped. “You see, the people who lived within the forest had no idea what was making their loved ones so sick. It could be something they were eating, or maybe the water they were drinking. To be safe, they dug a new well far outside their village. At first, the water they pulled up from this new well was cool, clear, and plentiful, but soon it dried up, with no explanation or reason. Those who still remained would gather at the edge of the well and lower the bucket with hopes of finding just a little bit of fresh water, but there was none to be had. They cried as they circled the well, so very thirsty and still heartbroken from the loss of their loved ones, and soon their tears filled it up, but that was too salty for them to drink, so they had to move away.”
Miriam gave a nod and adjusted her pack across her shoulders. “To this day, that well remains, somewhere deep within the Lost Forest, filled with the shimmering tears of a great number of magical beings. The magic contained within that Well of Tears is powerful indeed, because it’s the collected power of all of the enchanted creatures.”
“The Well of Tears?” Thaddeus whispered.
“That’s what they call it,” Fetter said from the back of the line. “Isn’t it a great name?”
Astrid made a disgusted sound. “It’s a horrible name. Ridiculous and romantic, and not even a good part of the story. No one’s ever seen it, and do you know how many tears it would take to fill a well? It’s not even possible!”
“Oh, and the infected blood from all the corpses getting into the trees and making them dark and twisted is possible?” Fetter said.
“Enough!” Miriam held up her hands. “I want you both to remain silent for the rest of this hike, until we stop to set up camp. Understood?”
“Yes, Mum,” both replied in sullen tones.
“Good.” Miriam took a breath, then smiled at Thaddeus when he looked back over his shoulder. “Gnomes,” she said, shaking her head.
Thaddeus grinned and turned to face forward again. He followed his father, who forged a path through the tall grass, keeping an eye out for rocks. But more often than not, his thoughts strayed to a mass grave filled with the bones of magical beings surrounded by dark, twisted trees and a well filled with tears, and he wondered—not for the last time, he was sure—if he would ever stop being surprised by this strange new world he had discovered.