The Midnight Gardener

 

 

Chapter ONE

 

THADDEUS CANE stood in the exact center of his new bedroom and looked toward the west. His room was in the back corner of the house, and through the window on that west-facing wall, he could see down into the neighboring yard. A tall wooden privacy fence surrounded the house, but from this angle, Thaddeus could see the lush, green expanse of lawn, flowerbeds exploding with color like a fireworks display fallen to earth, and a long stretch of dark, loamy earth along the rear of the property where vegetables grew. In a far corner of the yard sat a massive, gnarled stump, surrounded by groupings of plants with long, dark leaves and bleached nearly white from being exposed to the elements.

Through the other window, which looked out over their backyard, he could see the brown, scraggly lawn that led to a thick wooded area. The trees stood close together, branches stretching up to the sky. The limbs of the trees were so entangled he had trouble telling which branch belonged to which tree. Thaddeus reasoned that it wouldn’t take long for a person to get lost inside that wood, and he shivered at the thought.

Even though his room felt stuffy from being shut up for so long, Thaddeus didn’t yet want to open the windows. He wanted to get to know the new house, smell it as it stood before fresh air rushed in and cleared out all of its history, all of its stories.

He closed his eyes and reached his arms up over his head, fingers spread wide. The ceiling was far out of his reach—he wasn’t even six feet tall—but the stretch felt good in his muscles. A deep inhalation followed by a long, slow exhalation brought to him the scents in the room: old wood, moth balls, from the closet most likely, and something else, something old, much older than Thaddeus himself or even his father for that matter.

Not that his father was old. Well, he was forty-five now, which might as well have been 145 from Thaddeus’s perspective.

As if summoned by Thaddeus’s thoughts, his father cleared his throat from the doorway.

“Well?” his father asked.

Thaddeus opened his eyes. In the light that flooded in through the west-facing window, Nathan Cane’s face looked drawn and gaunt. Just recently it seemed the crow’s feet at the corners of his father’s hazel eyes had deepened, and the small wrinkle just between his eyebrows, a tiny furrow of concentration or concern, had appeared. His thick brown hair, always slightly unkempt but somehow stylish, was threaded with gray. Thaddeus wasn’t sure if it was the stress of them moving yet again or something else, but this relocation seemed to weigh more heavily on his father than all the others.

“It’s nice,” Thaddeus said.

“How’s it smell?” Nathan asked.

Thaddeus grinned. “Good. Nothing bad.”

“Not like the place in Eagle’s Hollow?”

Thaddeus sneered and shook his head. “Not at all.”

“Good.” Nathan grinned back, but the furrow of concentration between his eyebrows didn’t let up.

“Do you need help unpacking the kitchen?” Thaddeus asked.

Nathan shook his head. “Nah. I’ve got it down to a science by now. You get your room organized.”

Thaddeus watched his father leave the doorway and listened to him walk down the steps to the first floor, where he started opening drawers and cabinets in the kitchen. With a final inhalation and exhalation, Thaddeus pushed up both windows to admit the fresh air, noticed there were no screens on the windows here, unlike other places they had lived, and got to work unpacking the few boxes of his personal belongings. It wasn’t much, really, just some clothes, a collection of CDs, a few DVDs and video games, and a number of books, so many books. Having moved so often throughout his life, Thaddeus didn’t own a lot of things. Physical belongings weighed a person down. The only really heavy items he owned were his books, and he wasn’t about to go without them. He unpacked his well-read copies of Tolkien and Heinlein, Bradbury and Martin, and lined them up on his bookshelf.

The smell of the flowerbeds next door drifted in on the breeze, and every now and again he would pause to lean on the windowsill and stare down into the neighboring yard. The landscaping that surrounded the house he and his father had rented was quite inferior to their neighbor’s. But as Thaddeus leaned a little ways out of the window and peered across and down the street, he noticed the neighbor’s yard outshone a number of other residences on the block, so he didn’t feel too bad about it.

Some people just had a way with gardening.

Later that night, following a dinner of pizza, Thaddeus and his father set up both beds. They worked well together, both very familiar with the jobs that needed to be completed after a change of residence. In his father’s room, once they had managed to lift the box springs and mattress onto the frame, Thaddeus fell across the unmade bed and caught his breath.

“Guess we’ll both sleep well tonight, huh?” his father asked.

He was bent over a box across the room, pulling out keepsakes and setting them atop the dresser. The photograph of Thaddeus’s mother was set in its usual place in the left-hand corner of the dresser. It was black and white, and the camera had caught her midway through a laugh, her head thrown back so her thick, dark hair tumbled over her shoulders, and the spark of joy in her eyes was unmistakable. It was a great photo, a happy coincidence Nathan had snapped it when he had. Thaddeus had always thought his father placed the photograph in the upper left corner of his dresser because it mirrored where his heart lay inside his chest.

“I like that picture,” Thaddeus said.

“You say that every time I unpack it,” Nathan pointed out.

Thaddeus shrugged. “Doesn’t make it any less true.”

Nathan abandoned the box he was unpacking and lay on his back across the bed beside Thaddeus. Both of them stared up at the dusty ceiling fan above, hands clasped over their bellies.

“This move might be an easier adjustment for you,” his father said.

“Because school’s already out for the summer and I might be able to meet some kids ahead of time at the local hangouts?” Thaddeus asked.

Nathan chuckled. “You’re always three thinks ahead of me, aren’t you?”

Thaddeus turned his head on the mattress, feeling static build up in his hair with the movement, and they smiled at each other.

“Maybe two thinks,” Thaddeus said. “I’m not that much smarter than you.”

“Oh, thanks.”

Nathan rolled over and grabbed him, and they tussled for a moment. Thaddeus protested and struggled to get away, shouting, “Dad! I’m fifteen!” but couldn’t help laughing as his father growled deep in his chest like a woodland creature.

Finally, Thaddeus’s laughter and struggles rendered him breathless, and he managed to say between gasps for air, “Okay, I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I surrender! I’m just one think ahead of you. Just one!”

Nathan growled once more, the sound deep and resonant in his broad chest. Then he released Thaddeus, pushed up off the bed, and reached down to pull him to his feet.

“That’ll teach you,” Nathan said in a mock serious tone.

Thaddeus straightened out his T-shirt and glared at his father. “I’m fifteen, Dad. I’m too old to be wrestled with.”

“Remind me of that when I do it again. Now, go get showered, brush your teeth, and then hit the sack,” Nathan instructed. “It’s been a long day.”

Thaddeus snapped his feet together and saluted. “Heil, Father!”

Nathan glared, and Thaddeus hurried to the bathroom where he shut the door.

That night, Thaddeus couldn’t sleep. He always found it difficult to sleep the first night in a new house, though he figured it shouldn’t matter because they had moved so often: thirty-two times, by his count, and all since he was just a baby. All since his mother had died.

Thaddeus didn’t really know what had happened; his father didn’t like to talk about it. He used to ask questions about his mother—what she had been like, how she had died—but Nathan never fully answered him, and so Thaddeus just stopped asking. From what Nathan had said, she’d died in some kind of accident, but whether it was in a car or something in their home, he’d never found out. His father loved his mother and didn’t have anything to do with her death, that much Thaddeus knew for certain, because each time they moved, Nathan still put her picture out on top of his dresser, and Thaddeus figured he wouldn’t do that if he harbored any guilt.

He had left his windows open a bit to enjoy the night air, and the sound of someone humming drew him to the one that faced west. Thaddeus peered down into their neighbor’s yard where the light of the moon bleached the color from the flowers and the grass. Someone was out in the yard, moving from flowerbed to flowerbed, humming an odd tune. Fireflies danced around the figure, and Thaddeus frowned as he watched them move along with the person. He’d never known fireflies to trail after someone like that. This deserved a closer look.

The grass was wet and cool under his bare feet, sending a shiver up Thaddeus’s legs. He crept along the tall, wooden privacy fence, looking for a space between the boards or a knothole he might be able to peer through. But the fence was solidly built, and Thaddeus couldn’t find even the smallest crack to try and get a glimpse of the mysterious neighbor.

On the other side of the fence, Thaddeus could hear the humming gardener moving closer to the fence. A few fireflies drifted over the top and circled Thaddeus’s head, their lights flashing in rhythm. He moved a few steps back, and the fireflies spun around the place where he had been standing before rising up and slipping back over the fence.

Just as Thaddeus parted his lips to call a greeting over the fence, the skin at the back of his neck prickled, and he stopped. Someone was watching him.

He turned slowly toward the wooded area at the edge of their property. Just inside the closely spaced trees, Thaddeus saw something standing very still and staring at him. It was an animal of some kind, a big one, but he couldn’t tell if it was a dog or a wolf, or maybe even a cougar, as the moonlight didn’t reach far enough between the trees to illuminate it.

Chills rattled through him, stilling his voice and freezing him in place. He stared at the creature in the woods, trying to decipher form from shadow. It stared back, not moving or making a sound, and that was more frightening to Thaddeus than if the thing charged him.

The humming grew louder as the midnight gardener moved to a flowerbed just on the other side of the fence from Thaddeus. Thaddeus swallowed and tried to find his voice to shout a warning to his neighbor, but decided it would be unnecessary since his yard was completely closed in. Instead, he willed his legs to move and stepped backward toward the house. The shadowy creature remained standing in place, but it lowered its large head, and moonlight flashed within its eyes.

That sparked a reaction within Thaddeus, a thawing out of his fear, and he turned his back to run to the house, glancing over his shoulder every second step. Nothing pursued him, however, and he stepped through the side door and quickly closed and locked it behind him. Now that he was safe inside, shivers took him, and he stepped up and down in place to get them out of his system.

“Okay, so, no moonlit strolls,” he said to himself with a firm nod. “Got it.”

He crept upstairs, being quiet so as not to wake his father whose room was at the top of the steps. After pausing in the bathroom to wipe the grass and dew from his bare feet, he entered his bedroom and leaned out the window that overlooked the neighbor’s yard. The mysterious gardener was gone, and the fireflies now meandered around both yards, sparking and fading like normal insects. Thaddeus leaned a bit farther out of the window to see the place in the woods where the animal had stood and watched him. He squinted but couldn’t tell if the creature still lurked in the shadows.

With another shiver, he drew back inside and closed the window. After a second’s hesitation, he latched it even though his bedroom was on the second floor. Despite the excitement of his midnight sojourn, or maybe because of it, a yawn crept up on him. He slipped beneath the sheets and curled up on his side. He yawned once more before drifting off to sleep, where he dreamed of walking through a dense wood while a large creature followed him, both of them trying to track down the person who was humming a tune among the trees.

 

 

The Well of Tears

 

 

 

Chapter ONE

 

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.