A loud whirling filled Melena’s ears and a kaleidoscope of color swirled about her, as if she had flung herself into the center of a psychedelic tornado. The swirl of color made her stomach churn even worse so she pinched her eyes shut. She only felt Toad’s vice-like grip upon her arms and Hazel’s cold form pressed against her chest.
Without warning, her feet hit firm ground and her knees buckled.
Melena opened her eyes but squeezed them shut again as blinding white light stabbed her brain like needles. The stranger’s voice was unnaturally loud in Melena’s ears. She felt a pair of hands grip her elbows, helping her stand.
“Agatha, you could have warned me we were having guests,” the voice scolded. It belonged to a woman. “I would have put the kettle on.”
Melena tried to focus, but the woman standing before her remained stubbornly blurred.
“I’m Izzie Groot,” said the woman. “Are you friends of Agatha’s? Doing a bit of sight seeing?”
Agatha? Who was Agatha? It was so hard to concentrate. Her head throbbed, every noise a splintering stab.
The woman’s face swam in and out of focus. She was going to throw up and what would the woman think then?
“Melena!” Toad shouted very loudly and a pair of arms grabbed her as her legs gave out.
“Would you like another? I was worried I added too much rosemary.”
“Nah — they’re great!”
“Oh, thank you. Have as many as you like. With it just me here, I always end up with too many and they go stale so fast in this humidity.”
Melena found the voices bothersome. She wished they would be quiet so she could sleep.
“It’s a lucky thing Agatha was with you. Your friend would have become seriously ill without treatment.”
“But she’ll be okay now, right?”
It was Toad. But who was he talking to? Melena’s eyes remained shut, as if the lids were glued closed. What were they talking about? Where was she?
“Oh, yes. She’ll be right as rain now. She had ingested a very powerful sedative. Highly addictive. It’s the withdrawal that’s made her sick. The tonic I gave her will help soothe the symptoms.”
There was a pause. Though the fog remained firmly wrapped around Melena’s brain, her heart pumped faster.
“The dragon … the dragon is quite ill. Hazel, you call her? She will require more care. That potion was never meant for Spit-Fires.”
Something was wrong with Hazel? Why was … why …
Melena’s eyes flung open. “HAZEL!” She tried to jump up, but she was in a cocoon of heavy blankets and became tangled in the sheets. She tumbled head first out of a bed.
Hurried feet rushed to her. Melena thrashed against the sheets and her arm hit something hard that yelped.
“OUCH! Get a grip, Melena!”
Toad managed to pull the sheets away from her and Melena looked up, wide eyed. Toad and a woman stood over her, their faces mirrors of concern.
“Where’s Hazel?” Melena demanded. “Where is she?”
Toad and the woman stepped apart. Behind them, across the room, was a crackling fire. In it, wrapped in a blanket stained grass green, nestled down amongst gleaming coals, was Hazel.
With Toad’s help, Melena half walked, half crawled to the fireplace.
“She’s gonna be okay, Melena,” Toad kept saying in her ear. “Izzie’s helping her. Izzie knows all about potions. Don’t you worry.”
Melena knelt before the fire, staring at her dragon.
“She’s — Is she —”
“Alive,” said the woman. Melena’s eyes jerked upward. “I soaked the cloth in an ointment to help her heal.”
“I made the fire,” said Toad.
“And she’ll … get better?” The words were so hushed that Melena half suspected Izzie had been forced to read her lips.
“In the morning we’ll know more,” said Izzie, gently. “But her color is starting to come back. See?”
Melena turned back to Hazel. Only her pointed face was visible — so horribly bleached — the rest of her body was wrapped snugly in the cloth. Flames licked her nose, but she slumbered on.
“Why don’t you have some tea?”
Though Melena didn’t answer, Izzie pushed a warm mug into her hands.
“And try the cookies,” said Toad, settling down beside her on the packed-earth floor, holding out a plate. “They’ve got some weird herb in them —”
“Rosemary,” Izzie supplied.
“But they taste good.”
“And I’ll make soup, shall I?” Izzie offered brightly. “A nice, hot bowl of soup. That always perks me up when I’m troubled.”
As Izzie bustled about behind them, chopping this and that, sending a truly delicious smell into the air, Melena began to remember. But it was such a confusing blur. Almost like a terrible, horrible dream.
“Toad,” Melena whispered. “What happened? How did we get here?”
“You don’t remember?”
“We were … in a wagon, I think…”
Toad nodded. “When you weren’t at the inn, I went looking for you. Found out you’d found some bloke named Milo and I followed him to his cabin — took forever. I heard you upstairs, but he threw me in his wagon before I could do anything. Then he got you.”
Hot, shameful tears pricked Melena’s eyes. How could she have been so gullible? So stupid?
“I realized he was poisoning me,” she mumbled. “I thought he was going to kill me.”
“Not what Snatchers do.”
“I told you about ’em when we met that fortune tellin’ lady — Guave or Guac or somethin’.” Toad shifted more toward her, the plate of cookies in his lap. “Remember when I told you about Wilson’s sister? About how some of ’em trade in more than stolen goods?”
“But he wasn’t a fortuneteller,” said Melena, frowning at the memory of Milo. “And Lady Guave didn’t try to throw us in her wagon.”
“No,” Toad agreed. “There are all sorts of Snatchers. I don’t think that Guave lady dealt with human trafficking … maybe for a high enough price … Anyway, her wagon was full of black market junk. It gets hard to tell ’em apart, to be honest. Some prefer to mingle with society, helps ’em blend in.” Toad frowned at the fire, his dark eyes fixed upon Hazel. “Snatchers are the worst. Especially Snatchers like Mi —”
At the angry flush that spread over Melena’s face at the mention of his name, Toad changed mid-word “— him. Snatchers like him specialize in kids. Runaways, most likely. Gives ’em a smile, a warm meal, all dosed up with enough drug to bamboozle. He was a charmer, that one,” Toad added with a nasty grimace. “Next thing you know you’re miles from home and sold to the highest bidder.”
As if from a lifetime ago, Melena remembered a heated conversation between Mr. and Mrs. Bell after she had spilled zifferous juice on Mr. Bell’s freshly pressed trousers:
“Stop complaining about that clumsy girl!” Mrs. Bell had screeched. “You brought this on yourself, Ervin Bell. Pick one up at the orphanage, you said. Don’t want anything too illegal, you said. Could be traced back to us, you said. Bollucks! We should have taken one off that fellow down the road. He always finds good strong lads — not a runty little girl who can’t carry a serving tray to save her life! It isn’t as if you run a spotless business, Ervin, what with those black market goods in your workshop!”
“Are there Snatchers in Hickory, Toad?” Melena asked slowly.
“Oh yeah. Big cities like Hickory are full of ’em. But they gotta be extra careful with the Guard around. That must have been why Mi — that bloke — was living so far from people. Didn’t want anybody showin’ up unannounced while he’s loading the wagon. Might lead to awkward questions.”
The tea was helping. She didn’t feel nearly as sick now. Her vision was clearing and her limbs no longer trembled so badly.
“How did we get out of there?” Melena whispered.
“Ags.” Toad then looked around them. “She should be here somewhere. She was an hour ago.”
“The spider?” At once, a convoluted memory surged forward of a strange archway.
“Turns out she was on my shirt all along,” said Toad, a silly grin on his face. “Don’t know what we woulda done if she hadn’t been…” The grin faltered, sliding away as the terrible prospect settled over them both. “Got us out of a tight pinch, she did. Brought us here — apparently Izzie and Ags are friends. Izzie’s been great — you’ll like her,” said Toad, looking over his shoulder as Izzie added shredded greens to the soup pot. “Didn’t even bat an eye. Asked me what was wrong and took charge of you and Hazel like it was nuthin’. Fixed up some kind of tonic for you and mashed up a bunch of weird smelling things for Hazel.”
Melena didn’t even flinch as the very spider they were discussing scuttled up her leg and settled upon her knee. She had saved them. She had brought them to this woman who knew how to help and had done so without fuss.
This odd, little spider.
Melena’s vision swam with tears.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
Agatha’s inky eyes seemed to shine brighter in the firelight.
Their benefactor, who had now formally introduced herself to Melena as Izzie Groot, cooked them an invigorating stew that they devoured. Even Melena managed to have seconds. For the first time since arriving, Melena actually took in her surroundings.
The house was a tiny single-roomed building, warm and cozy with stacks of black, heavy-bottomed pots and bundles of dry, sweet smelling herbs hanging from the rafters. Up against a wall, beneath a small, round window, was the bed Melena had fallen out of. The house was clean enough, though cluttered. Piles of leather bound books were stacked in miniature towers around the place and bits of parchment were scattered on every surface. There were soot stains on the walls, a bowl by the sink was overflowing with radishes, and a single round wooden table stood in the center of the room, pockmarked with dents and burns from the periodic knocked-over-candle. Most of the windows were covered in some kind of lush vine with purple berries. The others, through their gauzy curtains, showed a steady rain.
Izzie Groot herself was a perfectly ordinary-looking person with a bushy tangle of brown hair in a hap-hazard bun and warm brown eyes. Her face was smooth and young. The only thing remotely surprising about Izzie Groot’s appearance was the finger missing from her right hand; though Melena tried very hard not to, her gaze lingered on the missing digit too often to be considered polite.
“I really don’t know how to thank you,” said Melena as they sat at the table eating stew.
Izzie shrugged her words away with a smile. “I don’t mind. I was telling your friend here that I don’t get visitors too often.”
“But you helped us and you don’t know anything about us,” Melena pressed.
“I knew you were in trouble,” Izzie corrected.
Toad lifted his bowl and drained the contents, then wiped his mouth clean with the back of his hand.
“Does Ags usually drop people who’ve been poisoned in your kitchen?” he asked curiously.
Izzie turned faintly pink.
“Well … when you put it that way, no. Not usually. But Agatha is a very insightful spider. She knew you needed my assistance.”
Melena nodded gratefully. Whatever Izzie had given her had made the nausea and fog disappear completely. Her only worry was for Hazel. She shot another glance at the sleeping dragon. “How did you know what to do?”
“Potions are one of my hobbies,” said Izzie with a shrug.
“Good thing, too,” said Toad. “Melena used to work in an apothecary,” he told Izzie. “Ever since I ran into her, I’ve felt that this whole country’s made of nuthin’ but potion people.”
Melena picked up the top book in a stack beside her: The Joy of the Cauldron, by Winfred Singer.
“Are all of these books about potions?” asked Melena, looking at the stacks around them with mounting interest.
“Not all of them, but it is my weakness. That one’s quite good, though a bit out dated on a few tech—” A sudden strong wind blew open a window that had not been firmly latched. Rain splattered onto the floor. “Oh drat!” Izzie hurried from the table, batted back the vines that were now billowing inside, and closed the window with a snap.
“Passion berries,” she sighed. “They’re more trouble than they’re worth.”
“Those are passion berries?” said Melena, surprised.
“Yes,” said Izzie, pushing hair from her eyes. “I planted them on a whim. I’ve regretted it ever since. Spent a whole summer trying to kill them.”
“I thought they were hard to grow,” said Melena, stunned, watching the vines sway outside the window. “That they only grow in a very particular climate.”
“Well, yes, that’s true,” said Izzie, resuming her seat at the table, “but here on the Shards, they grow like weeds.”
Melena jerked so badly that hot soup sloshed over her hands, burning them. Toad, who had just taken a great swallow of tea, began to choke.
“The Shards?” Melena gasped. “We’re on … the Shards?”
“Where did you think you were?” asked Izzie, thumping Toad on the back.
“We were in Licklade when Agatha saved us!”
“Oh, were you?” cried Izzie fondly. “How was it?”
“Wet,” said Toad.
Izzie grinned. “That’s the place. I lived there for a little while. Did you see the Soggy Dog? It’s a must visit when in Licklade.”
Toad goggled at her.
“We’re really on the Shards?” Melena repeated, dazed. “I didn’t think people lived here, what with the rocs.”
“They’re not that bad,” said Izzie. “Fishermen mostly spin those horror stories.”
“You mean they don’t kill people?” said Toad, a hopeful smile blooming.
“Well … not if you don’t bother them,” said Izzie.
The morning brought crystal-blue skies, but Melena was indifferent to the cheerful rays streaming through Izzie’s windows. She sat, hunched and quiet, before the crackling fire. Hazel had not moved.
Melena had recuperated so quickly that she had expected Hazel to bounce back to her bright, energetic self within hours. The sight, therefore, of Hazel just as sickly pale and immobile in the bed of coals when they woke, froze Melena to her core. Though she listened to Izzie’s assurances that Hazel would get better over time, Melena could not shake the terrible guilt of what she had allowed happen to her dragon. She hovered at Izzie’s elbow anxiously as Izzie changed Hazel’s dressings. With thick, elbow-length gloves, she lifted Hazel from the glowing embers and tucked a freshly soaked cloth tightly about her. Toad added a few more logs to the fire and Izzie returned Hazel to the coals.
“Don’t worry, Melena,” said Toad. “Hazel’s tough. She’ll be okay.”
Melena turned to Izzie. “How much longer before she’s better?”
“I don’t know,” Izzie admitted, removing the gloves. “Like I said, that sedative wasn’t meant for Spit-Fires. But I’ll do everything I can. I have a few books here on dragons,” she said, beginning to shift through a nearby stack. “They may have more information on how to speed her recovery.”
Izzie’s words did not make her feel better; in fact, Melena’s gut clenched sickly. It was her fault Hazel was so unwell. A lump in her throat kept her inaudible.
“Why don’t you and Toad take a walk? Stretch your legs,” Izzie suggested, still hunting for her dragon book.
The fear of leaving Hazel’s side swept the lump away. “No! I couldn’t!”
“Come on, Melena,” said Toad. “Hazel’s not going anywhere. It’s not doing any good sitting here fretting.”
“I’ll stay and look after her,” said Izzie.
Between Izzie’s encouraging smile and Toad tugging on her arm, Melena found herself outside, standing in Izzie’s small, walled-in garden, four fat, brown hens pecking the ground.
“There’s a path over there,” said Toad, pointing, and they started down it.
Though her worry for Hazel remained heavy in her chest, the beauty of the Shards relaxed Melena’s shoulders somewhat. The air was pungent with salt and sang with the cries of peculiar animals. All was bright and green.
Toad was oddly cheerful, nearly obnoxiously buoyant. He strode ahead, full of energy, gibbering happily about the luck of arriving on the Shards.
“That’ll cut out a good three weeks of trouble, wouldn’t you say? Hey … reckon we might find a talon on this path?” He looked down and scanned the ferns.
Melena refrained from sighing with difficulty. “I told you. We can’t steal it.”
Toad snorted. His initial fear of elephant-sized birds had clearly dispersed in the bright light of the Shards. “They’re nuthin’ but stupid birds,” he scoffed. “How can they remember who pinches a talon?”
Melena thought it best not to respond.
Their path rose steadily and a stitch formed in Melena’s side. The sky that had been so clear and inviting at the beginning of their outing now turned suddenly dark and foreboding as clouds swirled overhead on a sharp wind. Izzie had mentioned how quickly the weather changed on the Shards. One moment, sunshine warm enough to have them stripping out of their coats. The next, a cold downpour.
Melena peered up through the gap in the swaying trees and felt nervous anxiety bloom in her stomach.
“I think we should head back.”
But Toad, who had just disappeared through a large cluster of fern-like bushes, did not hear her. Grumbling, Melena hurried after him as the wind began to whip the trees.
“Toad!” she shouted, her annoyance growing. “Toad—”
Melena pushed through a giant fern and found Toad standing upon a large cliff, its face sharply slicing into the ocean far below. A gust of wind swept over them, ruffling Toad’s hair.
“Woah,” he breathed.
Melena was stunned. She had never seen so much water. Hickory’s river was a pathetic trickle compared to this endless, sweeping expanse of blue. And out in that deep ocean, protruded a cluster of towering rocks. No speck of green was visible on their harsh stone faces. Against the darkening sky, their barren forms looked threatening, like accusing, wicked fingers … like swords. They stretched upward, far higher than where Melena and Toad stood upon their own cliff. Seagulls cried on the wind, white specks against the bruised sky as they circled the towers.
As they watched, a gigantic form appeared in the sky, making the seagulls scatter. It was a bird. A huge bird. It flapped its great wings twice and the sound hit them like thunder claps before the bird settled upon a large crag on the topmost part of one of the towers. Sunlight momentarily peeked through the purple clouds, glinting upon the curved golden beak and dark, reddish brown feathers.
Melena and Toad stood rooted to the spot.
“Is that …”
“I think so,” Melena said breathlessly. It was larger … so much larger than she had envisioned.
They had found the rocs.