They settled in a meadow and Toad and Hazel made the fastest fire yet. Toad had the creeping suspicion that the cave monster may venture out at night and enter their camp, so he snapped a heavy branch from a tree to use as a makeshift club. Hazel caught them two large rats that they roasted over the crackling flames and Melena, with her foot propped up on a mossy rock, flipped through her potion book.
“I think that tree over there is a foxelm,” she said, pointing. “I can use the sap to reduce the swelling.”
They rose early and the sticky, red sap Toad had gathered for Melena had done the trick. She could walk. It was impossible to pinpoint their location on the map — they could have shot out anywhere in Dunthur. But they refused to let this trample their spirits.
Two down, Toad kept repeating as they made their way through fields of tall grass. Three to go.
“Look! A road!”
Toad followed Melena’s pointing finger and his heart fluttered.
“That must mean a town’s close by!” Melena cheered. “We might even be able to catch a buggy!”
“You’ve changed your tune about hijacking,” Toad observed with a grin.
“I see nothing wrong with efficiency,” Melena replied, primly, making Toad laugh.
The air was crisp with the arrival of autumn and the wind whipped about them; Toad kept having to brush his fringe out of his eyes. The rocky terrain smoothed over with grassy slopes and on one crystal clear afternoon, they crested a hill to see a town nestled down below in the crook of a valley.
Licklade, as the town turned out to be called, was weather-beaten and full of cotton-haired shepherds. It didn’t take long before they found a suitable inn — the Soggy Dog. Toad wrinkled his nose at the heavy smell of pipe smoke and stewed cabbage.
“What can I do for you?” asked a curvy woman behind the bar.
“Do you have any open rooms?” asked Melena, pulling her leather money pouch from her knapsack.
Toad sidled away from the bar, toward a pair of ancient men immersed in a furious battle of chess. He watched as one man chewed upon his pipe in furrowed concentration. One hand hovered uncertainly over a knight before shifting to a pawn —
“Liverwort? I don’t want liverwort!”
The man jerked so badly at the cry of indignation that two pieces clattered across the board. He swiveled in his chair, brandishing his cane, and bellowed, “Blast you, Birdie! Can’t you keep quiet!”
But Birdie didn’t hear or perhaps she was too enraged herself to notice. She sat slumped in her chair, woolen shawl wrapped tight about her frame, glaring daggers. Toad saw, on the table between Birdie and her companion, five stacks of brightly colored cards.
“Ooooh, they’re playing Bloodroot and Toadstools!” Melena had reappeared by his side. She was staring at the colored cards with great enthusiasm.
“Bloodroot and what?” asked Toad.
“You haven’t heard of it? It’s a potion memory game. I used to play it all the time back in the orphanage — that’s what got me interested in brewing. What you do is —”
But just then Birdie’s opponent let out a shrill cackle that made everyone in the room flinch.
“But I do, Birdie,” the spotted woman shrieked.
“Oh, toadstools!” Birdie cursed.
“Now that you’ve finished that pestilential game you can clear out and let people with a proper sport have some concentration!” the wizened chess player growled.
“Go boil your brains, Barney!” Birdie snapped. She turned back to her spotted friend. “I want another go!”
Barney quivered with indignation and Toad was quite looking forward to witnessing a full-on fight between the wrinkled players, but Melena tugged on his elbow.
“Room 3B is open,” she said, handing him a key. “And I’ve got 4B.”
“How much did that cost?”
“A handful of gorents won’t matter much when Mr. Owl pays me,” Melena said brightly. She turned and headed for the stairs. “Anyway, I think we’ve earned it.”
Her words made Toad’s insides twist unexpectedly. “I can sleep on the floor,” he offered quickly.
Melena laughed. “Don’t be silly, Toad.”
Room 3B was very small with a dresser, mirror and bed. Toad wrinkled his nose at the flowery patchwork quilt across the mattress before striding across the hall to peek into Melena’s room.
“I wanna trade blankets.”
“Why?” asked Melena, placing her bag on her own bed.
“Mine’s all girlie,” he said with irritation.
Hazel clambered up onto the bed and curled into a tight ball on the pillow. She heaved a deep sigh, her eyes closing. Melena smirked.
“Nope, I don’t think so.”
“Ah! Come on!”
“Think of it as character building,” she teased. Melena plopped down on the bed and kicked off her boots, wiggling her toes.
Preferring to not look at the repulsive quilt in his own room any longer than he had to, Toad untied Joe from his belt and put him on the dresser and his fingers came in contact with a spider’s web. “Ugh. Cobwebs.”
Melena got to her feet, her eyes on the dresser.
“Look at it,” she said, peering at the top drawers. “It’s covered.”
Toad hadn’t noticed, but now that he looked again, the entire dresser and mirror above it were draped with thin webs.
Melena humphed. “You’d think they’d dust once in a while.” She made to swipe them clear.
“Don’t, m’lady!” Joe cried suddenly. “’Tis rude to ruin Miss Agatha’s home!”
“Agatha? Who’s Agatha?” asked Melena.
“What home?” asked Toad.
“Miss Agatha’s home,” said Joe, sounding as if this was as obvious as the sky being blue. “Horribly offensive…” he muttered, nettled. “What she must be thinking. I did not condone their actions, Miss Agatha!” Joe cried, eyes swiveling upward. Toad and Melena followed his gaze. Set over the dresser, on the mirror’s fancy frame, was a vivid orange spider. The spider slowly slid down on a gossamer strand and stopped before their eyes, swaying gently.
It was the strangest spider Toad had ever seen. It was as large and fat as a marble, its abdomen bright orange with lacy black lines that curved and swirled on its back. The spider’s thin, long legs were orange as well, with black stripes.
“Master Toad, Lady Melena, Hazel” — Hazel grunted in her sleep — “I have the great pleasure to introduce Miss Agatha,” said Joe, his voice at his most impressive baritone.
They stared at the spider. She swung upside down, her eight black eyes glinting in the late afternoon sunlight. Then, very suddenly, she lifted one leg and waved it in what was unmistakably half a handshake.
Awkwardly, Toad and Melena waved back.
“How d’you know her?” Toad asked Joe out of the corner of his mouth.
“We met long ago,” said Joe with a nostalgic sigh. “I was so terribly lonely and Miss Agatha visited me to keep me company.”
Without warning, Agatha slid down her thread toward Joe, but she stopped short and took a few scuttles back up, creating a small loop. Without hesitation, as Toad and Melena watched, she slipped through the loop — and disappeared.
Toad gaped at the swaying noose, still dangling from the mirror’s frame. Agatha was gone. Erased from sight. Erased from the air.
“W-what happened?” Melena cried. “Where’d she go?”
“Probably to the garden. Miss Agatha is very fond of gardens.” Joe caught the stunned looks on their faces and chuckled. “My apologies. Ol’ Joe forgets that her means of travel startles those who don’t expect it. Miss Agatha can do … tricks with her web. She calls it slipping.”
“Slippin’?” Toad repeated, his eyes very round. “She did that just now?”
“Quite.” Joe nodded. But he suddenly narrowed his marble eyes and, glancing out the sun-soaked window, said rather shrewdly, “She shouldn’t startle people, though.”
“But what is slipping?” Melena asked Joe.
“How she travels,” Joe explained. “Coming here. Going there. She can move through space in the blink of an eye. Can go wherever she pleases.”
“Can move … through space?” Melena stopped short, speechless. Toad himself was floored by the idea. How could a spider possibly do something like that?
“How does she get back?” he asked.
“She makes another loop,” Joe said, as if it were obvious. Clearly he had seen Agatha do it so many times that the thrill had worn off. “Ah! — she’s back.”
Toad and Melena spun around, searching wildly for the spider.
Joe chortled again and jerked his eyes toward Hazel.
Hazel blinked groggily at the three of them from her spot on the pillows. There, as if she had never left, was Agatha, atop Hazel’s scaly head. As they watched, she tucked her numerous legs under her round body and settled down as if to take a nap. Hazel looked like a violent pustule had formed on her forehead.
“Blimey,” Toad breathed.
Melena tore her eyes from the glittering spider and turned to Joe.
“She calls it slipping?” Melena asked, eying the mug with a mixture of nervousness and suspicion.
“I’ve never heard of a spider doing that before,” Melena pressed. “Or being able to talk.”
“They don’t,” Joe agreed amicably.
“But how —”
“Not my place if she doesn’t want to say,” said Joe with an annoying air of diplomacy. “She’ll tell you if she likes.”
There was an awkward silence in the room as Toad and Melena stood by the web-covered dresser.
“Say … would ya like a bite to eat?” Toad finally offered.
“Would love to,” Melena agreed quickly. As fast as they could, they left the room and hurried down to the ground floor. Birdie and Barney were gone, along with their partners, but the pipe smoke lingered.
In the dwindling light, the Soggy Dog filled with diners and there was a cheerful clattering of forks on plates. They ordered a scrumptious meal that made Toad feel like royalty, after living off field rats and mushrooms.
“How can that spider do that?” Melena asked suddenly.
“How can Joe be Joe?” Toad shrugged. Now that he was warm and full, he didn’t care much about the odd spider. “Just the way they are, I s’pose.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Melena snapped. “Joe was created. Somebody made him. That spider just — just —”
“Slips,” Toad finished for her. He laughed. “Freakiest thing I ever saw. Even freakier than Joe.” He grinned at Melena. “Betcha want my room now.”
Toad had the best sleep in what felt like a lifetime and woke to find a heavy, gray sky pressed against his window. Tousle-haired and yawning, he knocked on Melena’s door. When she didn’t answer, he trotted down the steps, intending to get a cup of tea while he waited for her to rise, but she was already there, sitting at a table, a steaming pot by her elbow. Her potions book was open and she was writing on a piece of paper.
“Where’s Hazel?” he asked, pouring himself a cup.
“In the garden out back,” said Melena, scribbling something on the list before her. She turned a page in her book. “She likes digging up moles.”
As Toad reached for a muffin, he glanced at the scribbles.
“What’s all that?” he asked.
“I’m trying to time our travels. I asked the proprietor what month it is and she said it’s the middle of November. Incredible that we’ve been on the road for over two months, isn’t it?”
Toad grunted, eating his muffin.
“But we still need three more ingredients,” Melena continued. She pressed her pen’s tip beside them in emphasis as she spoke. “Talon, Mirg water, moonflower.”
“Piece o’ cake,” said Toad.
“But just getting to these locations might take months!” said Melena pensively. “And if we’ve learned anything so far, it’s that finding them will be just as difficult.”
Instead of getting worked up, Toad chose another muffin.
“Getting to the Shards is going to prove very problematic,” Melena continued, biting her lip.
“Yeah? Why’s that?” asked Toad through his mouthful, still refusing point blank to get roped into Melena’s anxiety.
“The Shards are a cluster of islands,” Melena explained, pulling her open book closer. “I think our best hope is finding a fisherman who’ll be willing to sail us to them, but Bartholomew says that though the fish are plentiful around the reefs, it’s tricky sailing and most refuse to venture near them because of the rocs.”
Toad snorted. “People sure are wimps. What are they scared of a pigeon for?”
Melena looked up at him.
“A roc isn’t a pigeon,” she said.
Toad grinned, lounging back in his chair.
“’Course it is! I’ve heard of ’em. Little blue pigeons — wait, don’t tell me, they shoot poison out of their eyes or something like that.” He laughed, taking another bite of muffin.
“Toad,” said Melena very slowly, as if she were speaking to someone foreign, “are you thinking of rauk pigeons? Little blue birds?”
“Yeah,” said Toad dismissively.
“No, Toad. We’re talking about two different birds. A rauk pigeon is harmless. They’re song birds. Mrs. Bell had one as a pet before Hazel ate it.”
Melena turned her potions book around and pushed it toward him.
“This is a roc.”
Toad looked down at the fancy drawing. He took in the sharp, curved beak, the wicked black talons, the enormous expanse of its wings. Beside the bird was a sketch of a grown man; he was tiny in comparison. For the first time in his life, Toad had the sudden desire to know how to read.
“What’s that say?” he demanded, pointing at the passage next to the drawing.
Melena turned the book back around and read aloud:
“The roc is the largest bird known to man with a wingspan of twenty-seven paces. They have been known to carry cattle for miles and even attack whales that surface for air. Though they can fly for months without pausing, they live only on the isolated islands known as the Shards. Their talons, hearts, and bones are potent in the Cauldron, but they are not commonly called for due to the bird’s viciously protective nature. Though not common, enough tales of rocs attacking ships have surfaced to cause fear in the sailing community. However, the roc is only as dangerous as the fool who angers it. The wrath of the roc is unprecedented.”
Melena stopped reading.
Toad stared. “We ain’t doin’ that.”
“Yes, we are.”
“No, we ain’t.”
“We are,” said Melena with force, slamming the book closed. “Toad, we have to. We need one of their talons.”
“Why one of their talons?” Toad argued, gesturing at the closed book. “What’s so important about a talon? Why’s it gotta be from a bleedin’ bird the size of a bleedin’ house?!”
“They’re not that big,” said Melena, patiently. “More like the size of a carriage.”
“That’s no better!” said Toad loudly. “They’re gonna slash us to pieces! They could probably feed us to their chicks!”
“They won’t,” said Melena, still with infuriating calmness. “We just have to be careful.”
Toad wasn’t comforted. The shock of discovering that his pigeon was large enough to carry off a draft horse was proving difficult to overcome. Instead of speaking, he looked back down at the book.
“‘The wrath of the roc is unprecedented,’” he recited. “What does that mean?”
Melena shifted slightly in her chair.
“It means that rocs hold very strong grudges,” she answered delicately.
Toad frowned. “What d’you mean by that?”
“It means that we’ll need to be careful about how we get hold of one of their talons,” she said, not looking at him. “Rocs never forget a thief. If we steal a talon, the bird will chase us until it kills us.”
For a moment, Toad was too stunned to speak. This news was more startling than learning of their size.
“B-but how are we gonna get one then?” he said, flustered. “Ask it?” He took on a polite voice. “’Scuse me? Pardon me? Can we have one of your talons, pretty please?”
Melena looked at him steadily. “I think that may be exactly what we’ll have to do.”
“But —” Toad was highly alarmed now. “But those birds have got to be all over the Shards. There are probably talons littering the place! Why can’t we just pick one up?”
“We mustn’t do that,” said Melena firmly. “A roc knows. I don’t know how, but if we just pick one up, sooner or later, we’ll be tracked down — Bartholomew says so. We have to find a roc and convince it to give us its talon. And anyway, I doubt talons would just be scattered all over the place — feathers more likely. No, talons will be in their nests.”
This was too much for Toad.
“There’s gotta be another way.”
Toad fell silent, staring at Melena’s book, wishing it would start talking like Joe and tell them some other way. Melena too was quiet.
“I gotta get some air,” said Toad finally.
Melena nodded and returned to her list. As Toad exited the Soggy Dog, he was so flustered that he accidentally bumped into a man.
“’Scuse,” Toad grunted.
The man didn’t reply, stepping past Toad and into the inn.
Toad put his hands in his pockets and shivered. He turned left and headed down a cracked sidewalk. Birds the size of houses … what had he gotten himself into?
Happy Fourth of July weekend to those of us in the USA! And thank you for reading!