Barclay Thorne knew almost all there was to know about mushrooms, and there was a lot to know.
He knew the poisonous ones never grew on trees. He knew the red ones with white spots made warts bubble up between toes, but the white ones with red spots cured warts, welts, and pustules of all kinds. He knew which ones made you drowsy or loopy, or could even knock you right dead, if you weren’t careful.
“You’re supposed to be taking notes,” Barclay hissed at Selby. Both boys were apprentices to their town’s highly esteemed mushroom farmer, but because Barclay was older and smarter, he was the one in charge. And he took his position very seriously.
“I c-can’t write and walk at the same time,” Selby blubbered, clutching his quill with his whole fist. Selby was a very pink boy. He had a pink nose and pink cheeks, like a plucked chicken, a resemblance made all the worse by his buzzed blond hair and stocky frame.
In nearly all ways, Barclay was the opposite. Though three years older, he was so short and skinny that Selby would likely outgrow him before next Spring. His dark eyes looked like ink smudges on his papery white skin, and his shoulder-length black hair was combed harshly to both sides, slick with oil to make it lie flat.
He didn’t see what was so hard about writing and walking. He doubted it was harder than reading and walking, and Barclay rarely walked anywhere without an open book in his hand.
The two apprentices had been assigned an extremely important mission to find a rare mushroom called the Mourningtide Morel, and for this, they had ventured to the edge of the Woods.
The Woods was no average wood. It was so large that no map could fit all of it, so dangerous that no adventurer dared explore it. It loomed to the west of their town like a great shadow.
The trees along the edge were gray and spooky, their trunks twisted like they’d been wrung out, and their branches reached up like claws toward the overcast sky. It was quiet except for the rustle of decayed leaves and the snaps and cracks of brittle twigs beneath boots. This was the only time to find the Mourningtide Morel: that bleak in-between part of the year after the leaves had all fallen but before the first snow.
Selby stumbled over a tree root and bumped into Barclay’s back.
“It would be easier to write and walk if you weren’t always looking over your shoulder,” Barclay grumbled.
“But we’re so close! You know what Master Pilzmann says about—”
“We haven’t gone in. And the town is right there.” Barclay pointed behind them to Dullshire. Their small town crouched on a knobby hill, encircled by a stone wall covered in spears, like a giant thorn bush. The people were about as friendly as thorn bushes as well. They didn’t like laziness—naps were expressly forbidden. They hated visitors—visitors could mean tax collectors, circus performers, or worse, Lore Keepers.
The only things the people of Dullshire loved were rules. But they only had one rule about the Woods.
Never ever, ever stray inside.
Because the Woods would trick you if you let it, leading you too deep within to find your way out.
And deeper in the Woods lurked the Beasts.
But Barclay, being a dutiful apprentice, would never dream of breaking Dullshire’s most important rule—especially because of how often he got in trouble for accidentally breaking so many little ones. He would do exactly what he’d come here to do, and that was to find the Mourningtide Morel. With or without Selby’s help.
Barclay didn’t understand why Master Pilzmann had insisted Selby come along, or why he’d even taken on a second apprentice in the first place. Dullshire didn’t need two mushroom farmers. And when Master Pilzmann retired, it would be Barclay—not Selby—who took over for him.
After all, Barclay made sure he was the perfect apprentice. He took detailed notes in neat cursive handwriting. He had memorized every mushroom species in The Filosopher’s Field Guide to Finding Fungi volumes one through nine. Even Master Pilzmann himself had claimed that Barclay was the hardest-working boy Dullshire had ever seen.
Which was why Barclay refused to leave the mission empty-handed. He needed to prove to Master Pilzmann that he only needed one apprentice.
“I’m not leaving. Not yet,” Barclay declared, and he continued marching along the tree line.
Selby followed but whimpered as they walked.
As the older apprentice, it was Barclay’s responsibility to comfort Selby—not just to teach him. Selby had never been near the Woods before, and even Barclay, as experienced as he was, still thought the twisted trees looked a bit frightening.
But Barclay found it very hard to be nice to Selby. At home, Selby had many brothers and sisters who cared about him. Parents who looked after him. A room of his own. Barclay had none of those things. He’d had the last one, at least, until Master Pilzmann had let Selby move in.
There was no orphanage in Dullshire. If you wanted supper and a bed for the night, then you had to work for it. So Barclay had grown up working many jobs. He’d stacked books in the library, recorded new rules for the lawmakers, and delivered more spears to the sentries. But even though Barclay had tried to be exceptional at everything, when it came time to choose his apprenticeship, no one in Dullshire had offered him a spot. They were too worried about the futures of their own children to care about a scrappy rule-breaking orphan too.
And so Barclay had knocked on old Master Pilzmann’s door and begged for this apprenticeship, a job no one else wanted. Master Pilzmann had refused, and refused, and refused. But Barclay kept trying until he agreed.
And it had been fine for two years, all until the day that Selby showed up. He still cried and fled back home every chance he got, but Master Pilzmann hadn’t refused him. Not once.
“It’ll be dark soon,” Selby whined to Barclay.
“Not for hours,” Barclay told him.
“It’s Winter. What did you expect?”
“Didn’t you eat lunch?”
“I fed it to Gustav.”
Gustav was Master Pilzmann’s pet pig, who sniffed out valuable truffles hidden in the ground. Normally, Gustav would join the boys on quests such as these, but Gustav had mysteriously gained weight this past year, so much weight that waddling exhausted him. He spent all day napping by the fire.
“You’ve been feeding Gustav?” Barclay buried his face in his hands. The mystery of the pig fattening was solved, and once again all of Barclay’s problems proved to be Selby’s fault.
“I don’t like mushrooms!” Selby complained. “They’re slimy, and they taste like dirt!”
Barclay could hardly believe what he was hearing. “Then why are you here?” he shouted. It was the very question that had bothered him for ages. He also felt personally offended—he liked mushrooms very much.
Selby’s pink face flushed several shades pinker, and he burst into tears. “My mom said it was a good future for me.”
This seemed to be a lot of pressure to put on an eight-year-old, and for a moment, Barclay did feel rather bad.
But Barclay couldn’t get distracted. If he wanted to keep his apprenticeship, he didn’t have time to feel sorry for anyone but himself. This job was the only thing that ensured Barclay really fit into Dullshire, and Dullshire, however small and rural and rule-obsessed, was Barclay’s home. He would never leave it.
When Barclay had been very small, before his parents had died, he used to dream of adventure. He spent hours imagining the world that existed beyond Dullshire’s prickly walls, other towns and cities and kingdoms in far-flung realms beyond the Woods.
But his parents had loved Dullshire—they wouldn’t want such a life of uncertainty and danger for their only child. And so Barclay refused to disrespect their wishes. He tried to forget about the call of adventure, concentrating instead on how to stay. To belong.
Barclay focused back on the mission, and for the next several minutes, the only sounds were Selby’s teeth chattering, his nose sniffling, or his stomach rumbling.
As Barclay knelt to examine a promising fungus, Selby tapped him on the shoulder. “Look. Look.”
Barclay swatted him away and pulled out his forager’s notebook, to compare the sketch to the subject before him. He frowned. He needed a scarlet dome, but this one was clearly crimson. Mushroom foraging was a very precise science.
He dug it out anyway and added it to his basket.
I’ve done it again, Barclay scolded himself, inspecting the dirt underneath his fingernails. Master Pilzmann hated how dirty Barclay got himself, and how his hair looked wild only hours after combing it. Repeat after me, Master Pilzmann would always say when he quoted Dullshire’s lawbook. Filth is prohibited—no dirt, no odor, no potty mouths. Cleanliness is orderliness.
“Barclay!” Selby squeaked, and Barclay finally stood up and turned around.
The grass between them and Dullshire was alive, with dozens—no, hundreds—of tiny, glowing white eyes peering at them between the weeds.
The piles of leaves beneath the boys’ boots shuddered and shook as small figures dashed within them. Selby hopped back and forth as though he stood barefoot on hot coals.
“Barclayyyyyyyy,” he wailed.
But Barclay was frozen, his gaze fixed on a single creature perched on a rock. It looked like a mouse, except without a tail and with six curled spikes protruding from its back.
Barclay had seen Beasts before. Sometimes, on breezy Autumn days, strong gusts of wind carried glimmering insects from the Woods to his town, whose stingers turned your skin swollen and green. He’d spotted Beasts flying in V shapes across the sky, seeking out warmer places for the Winter, and leaving trails of glittery smoke behind them. Occasionally, more vicious Beasts snuck out from the Woods to break into chicken coops and goat pens for nighttime feasts.
When Barclay was four years old, the Legendary Beast who lurked in the Woods, named Gravaldor, had destroyed Dullshire on Midsummer’s Day. Though Barclay had never glimpsed Gravaldor’s face, he remembered how the town walls had crumbled from the force of his roar. Gravaldor had torn roofs off homes with his jaws, sinking fangs into stones as though they were butter. His magic had caused the earth to rupture, making whatever remained of their once flat town now stand on a tilt.
It was thanks to Gravaldor that Barclay was an orphan.
Knowledge of Beasts had since been forbidden in Dullshire. Travelers who spoke of them were turned away from inns, in case they could be Lore Keepers, wretched people who bonded with Beasts and shared their magic. Children who played too close to the Woods were punished. Even the Beast-related books in the library were burned, making the entire subject a mystery.
“I thought the B-beasts stayed in the Woods,” Selby moaned.
“They usually do.”
Barclay had foraged along the edge of the Woods before without ever spotting a Beast.
But Midwinter was only a few weeks away, and like Midsummer, the holiday was known to make Beasts behave strangely.
Barclay took a careful step away from the mouselike creature. He considered reaching into his pocket for the charm he kept to ward off Beasts. But it was already too late for that.
“Don’t panic,” he told Selby. “They’re blocking our way back to town. But if we just think of…”
Except Selby didn’t listen. Dropping his notebook and quill behind him, he turned around and shot off.
Into the Woods.
The hundreds of eyes in the grass seemed to blink all at once. Barclay glanced at Dullshire in the distance, his whole body trembling. Selby was gone. Into the Woods. If Barclay could get around the terrible creatures, he could alert the sentries, who protected Dullshire from the Beasts. Selby had parents and a family, after all. The townspeople would grab their pitchforks and go after him.
But before Barclay could take off, one of the mice leaped out of the leaves and landed on Barclay’s boot.
He shook it off and sprinted after Selby. As soon as Barclay crossed into the trees, the daylight dimmed, swallowed by the knotted branches overhead. The already cold weather went colder, a fine, icy mist prickling against his skin.
Barclay was small for an eleven-year-old, which made him an easy target for older kids looking for trouble. They tore pages out of his library books or stole the coins he saved for apple pastries.
If they could catch him.
Because when Barclay ran, even the sheepdogs struggled to keep up. And so he barreled down the forest hills and soon caught up to Selby, who ducked between the gray trees.
The wind blew, and leaves tumbled farther into the Woods, as if dragged by a riptide. The trees bent low, as though pointing Selby deeper, deeper.
“Selby!” Barclay screamed.
His long hair whipped across his face as he ran, quickly growing wild and tangled. The wind seemed to push him forward, like it was trying to carry him off as well.
Behind him, Barclay had lost sight of the edge. There were only trees and mist in every direction.
We’ve broken the rules, and now we’re going to die, Barclay thought with panic. Even if they escaped the Woods without being eaten by a Beast, what would they tell everyone? Selby and Barclay were both terrible liars.
Then Selby suddenly stopped running. Barclay skidded to a halt and slammed into him, knocking both boys down a thorn-covered hill. They rolled in a tangle of leaves and legs and branches, mushrooms spilling out of their baskets and bouncing down after them. They each screamed until they collided with the base of a fallen tree.
“What were you thinking?” Barclay shouted, shoving Selby off him. “We could’ve broken our necks! And—”
Selby let out a strangled sound and scampered back up the hill.
“What…?” Barclay turned around to see what had scared Selby off, and froze.
On the fallen trunk of a massive tree, there stood a girl.
And on her shoulder, there sat a dragon.