It hadn’t taken them long to gather their things, untie Betsy and follow the stranger away through the now dark woods. They followed him in silence, leaving the rainy clearing behind them. Jill had turned off the light from the wand shortly after the wolf left, and she was hoping the stranger would think they had some kind of torch that had been extinguished in the rain.
Had he noticed the wand? He didn’t say. Simply walking into the woods through a path known only to him, he led them away. He made no comments about how strange it was that a full-blown thunderstorm would confine itself to such a small space. Nothing was said when the sheet of rain immediately stopped. When they thanked him for fighting away the wolf he grunted. After telling them to follow him, his grunt was the only sign Jack and Jill had that he could communicate.
Darkness lived in the woods. Jill felt some safety with the stranger present—he’d saved them from the wolf—but he was one man, and there were a million shadows. Still dripping wet, her cold clothes hung close to her body adding discomfort to the fear. She almost wanted to pull out her wand and light it up.
It had been an easy spell; unconscious even, and hardly required any energy at all. But Jill wasn’t sure who she could trust in this strange world. The man had helped them once—good so far—but she didn’t want to reveal too much information about who they were and what they were doing.
Successfully resisting the urge to pull out the wand for light, Jill was relieved when she finally saw the bright warmth of a fire. The camp was more bare bones and seemed less comfortable than theirs had been, except the stranger had successfully started a fire without magic. The man crossed the camp, sat down near the fire and leaned back against a tree.
“Get warm. Get some sleep,” he said. As if following his own advice, he closed his eyes and his head nodded forward.
Jack looked over at Jill and shrugged his shoulders walking Betsy over to a tree to tie her up for the night. Worn out from using magic, Jill’s stomach grumbled again.
Spilling from the book bag as she opened it, the apples tumbled to the ground. One rolled around the fire to settle in front of the stranger. His head rose from its sleeping position and considered the apple. A flash passed across his eyes and Jill was instantly worried. Hunger. The glance subsided; he grabbed the fruit in one hand and held it up, as if seeing an apple for the first time.
“A Foreverland apple,” he said.
Jill heard the loud rumbling sound of a stomach in need of food. The stranger’s stomach. It was the first time she’d actually considered his appearance since he arrived and fought off the wolf.
He was in his mid to late twenties. At least ten years older than they were. A mess of brown hair fell around his face and nearly covered his grey eyes. Despite his smile—a constant slight smirk—his eyes were sad. He was lean and Jill couldn’t decide if his thin figure came from exercise or malnourishment. His stomach growled again. He needed food.
“Eat it,” Jack said, coming to sit down beside her.
Still holding the apple up in the firelight, he rotated it in his hands, closed his eyes and took a bite. It was the softest crunch Jill had heard from one of their apples, and it looked like the stranger was trying to savor every moment—and failing. After the first bite he went at the apple with a vengeance, eating it—core included—in a matter of moments. Watching him eat the apple, Jill knew she had no idea what hunger really was.
“What the wolf told us,” Jack said, “about everybody being hungry. Is that true?”
The stranger was licking his fingers at this point and looked up at them suspiciously after the question. “Yes.”
“Why? Is it the Blackness?” Jill asked.
He didn’t answer Jill’s question, and she could tell he was confused. Whatever it was that had caused everyone to be hungry was apparently common knowledge.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
Jack and Jill shared a look before answering. “I’m not sure how to explain,” Jill said truthfully.
“Who are you?”
“I’m Jack,” he replied quickly.
“Jill.” She was more cautious.
“And how did you get your hands on a mountain of apples and a magic wand?”
The stranger chuckled to himself, but not the menacing chuckle of the wolf. He was truly amused. “Oh, don’t be so surprised. I wasn’t going to let him hurt you, but I got there long before you saw the wolf. That was some trick you did there—the fire, the storm. I haven’t seen magic like that in years.”
Tired of him knowing everything and them knowing nothing, Jill interrupted him. “And what about you? What are you doing in these woods and why did you help us against the wolf?”
“I live in these woods,” he said. “And I helped you against the wolf because that’s what I do.”
“What’s your name?” Jill asked.
“Hunter,” he said after a moment’s hesitation.
“And why is everyone hungry?” she asked again.
“Isn’t it obvious?” Hunter took a deep breath, his quirky smile disappearing as he spoke. “I’m sure you’ve noticed the trees, how about half of them are dying?” Both Jack and Jill nodded. “You called it the Blackness,” he said.
“Foreverland has changed a lot since the Blackness started. Before, nearly everyone lived good peaceful lives. King Coal, a good man who had come from a good line, ruled all of Avelin. His grandfather planted Foreverland apple trees along the major roads and there was no more hunger. His father battled back a group of giants who threatened Foreverland and there was no more war. When Prince Coal was born there were high expectations. He didn’t let Foreverland down. With the help of a fairy godmother he found his bride, the legendary Snow White, conquered her curse and opened trade routes with the dwarves. Under King Coal, Foreverland knew no poverty.
“So that’s what Foreverland was like—free from hunger, war and poverty. But about 14 years ago, an evil witch killed the last fairy godmother and the Blackness began. It started slowly at first. When a tree started to die, we cut it down and tried to grow a new one in its place. When a field of grass or a crop turned black, we burned it and replanted. That worked for a while, but we couldn’t keep up. Eventually it wasn’t just the plants that were dying, but the ground they had been planted in too.
“The biggest problem was the apple trees. A Foreverlander can live on just apples, and most of us did for a year or two after some of the crops became useless. But then the apple trees started to die. There wasn’t enough food to go around. Apples were our main export to the dwarves, and they closed off trade routes claiming they weren’t profitable. And it’s very sad but true, that when the dumb animals became scarce, Foreverlanders started to eat the talking ones. As a result, some of the more aggressive animals are fighting back. Now Foreverland is full of hunger, poverty, and in some small way, a war with the animals.”
Jill was amazed. Things were much more complicated here than she could have ever imagined. Aren’t fairy tales supposed to be easy? Was it really up to her and her alone to save Foreverland? “What about King Coal?” she asked. “What is he doing to fight against the Blackness?”
Hunter nodded. “King Coal was killed around the same time as the fairy godmother, leaving his wife and a young baby prince behind. The prince passed away a few weeks later. Because she has no heir, the nobility doesn’t want to support Snow White as a Widow Queen and many of the single nobles insist that she marry one of them. They would have taken her off the throne long ago except for fear of how the dwarves would react. And the people—she’s amazingly popular. But she’s so busy holding onto her throne she hasn’t been able to take time for Foreverland either.”
This was all worse than Jill could have imagined. The only help she knew she could trust was Jack. Hunter seemed nice, but how long would that last and how many apples would it take? Jill had only been here a day and there seemed to be so many problems. If she could just find a way to reverse the Blackness she felt that half of Foreverland’s problems would be solved. Stopping the Blackness meant stopping the witch. Stopping the witch meant getting to the wings first. And it meant learning to Wish. She found herself more determined than ever.
“Now it’s your turn,” Hunter said, breaking her train of thought. “I answered your questions, now how did you get apples like that? If there are living apple trees somewhere nearby you need to show them to me tomorrow. We could help a lot of people.”
Jill noticed the sincerity in his voice. “There’s not any living apple trees nearby,” she said regretfully.
“We brought them with us,” Jack said. Jill glared at him, stopping him from saying more.
“And what about the wand?” Hunter asked.
Jack started to say something but Jill nudged him in the side with her elbow.
Hunter smiled before continuing. “Where are you going then?” he asked. “Maybe I can help you get there.”
“We need to find the fairy godmother w—”
This time Jill elbowed Jack hard. He tried his best to hold back a groan but was unsuccessful.
Jill spoke as calmly as possible. “We need to find the road to Avelin.”
“Well let me ask you this,” Hunter started in. “You won’t tell me where you come from, what you’re doing and how you got a hold of so many apples and a magic wand. Why should I help you?”
“Because we’re defenseless and lost children,” Jill said hopefully.
“Try again,” Hunter insisted.
Jill searched for a moment for a true answer Hunter would like without revealing too much about what they were doing in Foreverland. “Because we’re going to stop the Blackness.”
Hunter’s eyes narrowed. “A Blackness you didn’t know had hunger stricken all of Foreverland?”
“Yes,” Jill said confidently while Jack rubbed his side and looked at her confused.
Hunter looked her in the eyes for what felt like an eternity. She was telling the truth, and hoped he could see that.
“Alright, I’ll show you the way,” Hunter said. “The main road is about a day and a half north from here. We start early tomorrow.”
Then, as if they weren’t even there, Hunter leaned comfortably back against the tree, closed his eyes and nodded his head forward.
Jack was still rubbing his side. “Why did you hit me?” he whispered.
“Because you were going to tell him everything?” Jill spoke softly but firmly. She glanced from Jack to Hunter. He didn’t move, but Jill was sure he was listening. “We can’t trust everyone. We don’t really know anything about him.”
“He saved us from the wolf.”
“Yeah, but if he turns out to be a bad guy, who’s going to save us from him?”
Jack looked hurt. “Come on, I think I could do okay in a fight or something…” Jill rolled her eyes but Jack continued. “And besides, you’re the,” he glanced at Hunter over the fire and lowered his voice even more, “the fairy godmother. You could do something?”
“I can’t control it, Jack, and I’m not even sure about what I’m doing.”
“Still, that’s not the point. I think we can trust him. I think we should.”
“Whatever,” Jill said shaking her head. “He’ll help us get to the road and then all we have to do is follow it to Avelin. This will be over in a few days. And after we get the wings, maybe we can try to figure out this Blackness.”
“You think you can stop the Blackness?” Jack asked.
“Maybe,” she shrugged. “If we stop the witch, the Blackness could just disappear or something.”
“Okay, you’re the fairy godmother,” Jack said, moving to lie down next to the fire. “I hope you really do find a way to stop the Blackness.”
“Me too,” Jill said.