When Lottie woke she was warm, dry, and more than a little confused. She opened her eyes and recognized nothing around her. She was lying in a large, comfortable bed with clean downy sheets. Her head throbbed and her throat felt like it had never come in contact with anything wetter than sand, but the sun was warm on her face and the gentle chirping of birds made her forget the horror of nearly being burned alive by an irate, visually impaired dragon. She sat up and immediately regretted the decision.
Her arm exploded with pain and all at once the memories of the battle with Helgarth raced through her mind. Sure, she’d been in dangerous predicaments before, but usually she only sat on the sidelines watching. Never had she been the one doing the rescuing. Her heart hammered rapidly in her chest and her left arm screamed to remind her of the consequences of her actions. She gasped to keep from crying as her burns radiated heat though her body. She clenched her eyes shut and ground her teeth together in attempt to will away the pain.
“Oh, you’re awake,” said a squeaky voice. “Guess it’s time to change your bandages.”
A withered, spindly hand cradled Lottie’s arm while Lottie did everything she could to not choke the life out of the old woman the hand belonged to. The woman removed the bandages and the couple of layers of skin that didn’t seem to want to be separated from them. Lottie screamed and lost control of her limb. The offended arm jumped to life on its own terms and slapped the woman across her wrinkly face.
Ignoring the princess’s protest, the woman renewed her grip on Lottie with strength that was surprising in someone who looked as if she’d fall over in a strong wind. She smeared a thick, gluey salve into Lottie’s burns. Relief instantly rushed over Lottie and she swooned a little. The woman cackled and proceeded to wrap the arm in a clean, white gauze. When she was finished, she thrust a seashell into Lottie’s hand.
“Drink,” she ordered.
Lottie drank. Cold, fresh water slid down her throat taking her breath away. She refilled the shell three more times before she had drunk her fill. After the water came a slightly larger shell filled with hot soup. The soup had large chunks of crab and a spicy, coconutty taste which Lottie found delicious. She hadn’t realized how hungry she was. When the last dregs of soup were finished, Lottie sighed contentedly and handed the shell back to the woman.
“How was it?” said the woman removing the shells and soiled bandages. Lottie belched in response. “I’ll take that as a compliment,” the old woman cackled.
“Who are you?” Lottie asked.
“Oh, Lordy, where are my manners,” the woman said. “I’m Agatha. And you’re Lottie. Princess Lottie to be exact.”
Lottie was taken aback. “How do you know my name?” she said.
“Your friend,” Agatha said. “The boy in the dress.”
“Calix!” shouted Lottie. “How is he?”
“Oh don’t worry about him,” Agatha laughed. “Him and the dragon’s out collecting firewood for me.”
Lottie’s heart leapt. “Godric’s okay too!”
Agatha had to force Lottie back into bed. “Now, you just calm down, little lady,” she said. “Don’t go working yourself into a fuss. Both of your friends are just fine. It’s you, you should be worried about.”
“I’m fine,” Lottie said. “Never felt better. How long was I out?”
“About a week,” said Agatha.
Lottie coughed and nearly passed out again from the shock. “A week?” she said.
Agatha nodded and began to move around her tiny hut tidying things up. For the first time Lottie got a good look at the place. Agatha’s house was very small, barely large enough to fit the bed Lottie was currently lying in, a fireplace, and a rickety table made out of seaweed and driftwood. All around the circular room hung herbs, flowers, and other plants Lottie had never laid eyes on. The table was littered with seashells and glass bottles containing ointments, potions, creams, and powders. A small cauldron sat at the edge of the table beside a well-used mortar and pestle. Not exactly the accommodations Lottie was used to, but she decided that she like the place. It was homey and had a pleasant briny scent.
“Your home is lovely,” Lottie said.
Agatha beamed with pride. “I built this place myself,” she said. “It’s not much, but it’s homey and has a pleasant briny scent.”
Lottie shrugged that off as a coincidence and eyed cauldron. “Are you a witch?” she said.
Agatha rolled her eyes and glowered at her. “I could have been,” she said. “But I didn’t pass the entrance exam. Had trouble with transfigurations. My toads always retained their human eyes.”
“I’m so sorry,” Lottie said.
“I could never make any of my spells stick anyway,” Agatha replied rinsing out the seashells and arranging them neatly on a shelf. “Some people have it, some people don’t. I only wanted to be a witch because of my mother in the first place. I come from a long line of prominent witches. I’m afraid my mother was quite disappointed when I never seemed to display a gift for it.”
“So all these herbs and things…” Lottie said.
“Medicinal,” Agatha said. “Never amounted to much of a sorceress, but I’m a top notch healer.”
“I’m glad you are,” said Lottie. “I’m not sure I’d be here if not for you.”
Agatha finished tidying up and plopped onto the bed beside Lottie. “You wouldn’t be,” she said. “Have you had a good look at that arm of yours?”
Lottie looked at her injured arm for the first time and almost threw up that delicious crab stew. She didn’t know what she expected, but it was definitely what she saw. The skin was blackened and blistered. What was left of it anyway. Her arm resembled something a butcher would discard than a fully functional limb. Lottie stared at it in horror. Agatha noticed Lottie’s expression and placed a comforting hand on her shoulder.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “It’s not quite as bad as it looks. We can fix you right up.”
“Really?” Lottie asked hopefully.
“Of course,” said Agatha. “I told you I am a top notch healer. You’re lucky that boy got you here when he did. Not an easy task dragging an injured princess and an unconscious dragon three miles to shore in time to save that arm of yours.”
Lottie was speechless. She hadn’t considered how she had come to be in Agatha’s hut, but she never imagined that Calix could have carried her. In a dress no less! She may have seriously misjudged his character. Lottie was almost too relieved when Agatha interrupted her thoughts.
“You know,” she said. “That shield was harder than blazes to remove. Most of it had melted right on to the bone. What on earth did you do to make them Iron Mountain dragons so angry?”
Lottie sighed and smiled. “It’s a long story,” she said.
“Well, your friends won’t be back for a while,” said Agatha. “And I love a good story.”
By the time Lottie had finished the story the sun was setting and Godric and Calix had returned. Godric still had a black eye and what appeared to be a broken nose, and Calix was missing his eyebrows, but both of were otherwise uninjured. After a few moments of hugs, tears, and a collective sigh of relief, a fire was built, dinner was cooked, and Agatha introduced them all to her homemade wine.
An hour later the wine was gone, the fire had died to smoldering embers, and Godric had challenged Agatha to a game of tic-tac-toe in the sand leaving Lottie and Calix alone. There was an uncomfortable silence between the two and for a while they were content to watch the last wisps of smoke rise and dance away from the fire.
Calix cleared his throat and tried to speak but nothing came of it. Lottie shifted her weight and scratched nervously at her injured arm.
“How’s your arm?” Calix said at last.
“Still hurts,” she said loosening her bandages. “And it itches pretty badly. Agatha gave me some salve she concocted that she says will heal it up in no time.”
She pulled a small jar from her pocket and unstopped it. She recoiled a little at the metallic scent that assailed her nostrils. Calix laughed.
“That bad eh?”
“Not really, “ she said. “Just smells like my grandma.”
She unwound the bandages and smeared the medicine on her burns. Calix whistled slightly.
“I didn’t realize it was that bad,” he said. “Is that bone?”
Lottie nodded as cool relief seeped into her muscles. She wound a new bandage over her newly growing skin, but couldn’t quite tie it off. She hated the look of pity in Calix’s eye as he took her hand.
“Here, let me help,” he said. Lottie didn’t like showing any sort of weakness but offered him her hand. His touch was surprisingly gentle and she found that she minded him touching her less than she would have thought. When he was finished he held her hand just a little longer than Lottie felt was necessary.
“Um, Calix?” said Lottie eying their intertwined hands.
He quickly pulled his hand back and even in the half light of the near dead fire, Lottie could see him blush. Lottie decided it was rather endearing and place a hand on his shoulder.
“Thank you,” she said.
“Don’t mention it,” he replied.
“Thank you for also dragging my unconscious body to shore,” she continued.
Calix snickered. “Oh, you were no problem,” he said. “Getting Godric here was the hard part.”
“Jeez, Calix,” Lottie said rolling her eyes. “Just say ‘you’re welcome’ already. Don’t be so damn modest. According to Agatha, you probably saved my life.
“I definitely saved your life,” he said. “But I you saved mine first back there in the Crater so I was just repaying a debt.”
“Oh, right,” she said, remembering the battle with Helgarth and shuddering. “I guess we’re even.”
“Not quite,” Calix said and his eyes fell again on Lottie’s bandaged arm. Lottie understood. Somehow Calix blamed himself for her injuries. She wanted to comfort him but didn’t quite know what to say. Another uncomfortable silence followed. Eventually she spoke.
“Calix,” she said. “I think we got off on the wrong foot. What say we start over.”
“I-I’d like that,” he said.
“Good,” she said. She looked around and breathed in the salty sea air. “Where are we by the way?”
“The Southern Isles,” he said. “The southern most of the Southern Isles, actually.”
“Does it have a name?” she asked.
“No. Too small,” he said. “Agatha is the only one who lives here. Tomorrow we can take a walk and you’ll see how small it is.”
Lottie noticed the hopeful tone in his voice but decided to play coy. “Who does Agatha heal then, if she’s the only one here?”
Calix scooted close to Lottie and pointed vaguely northwesterly. Lottie couldn’t help noticing that he deliberately smelled her hair as he did so. She didn’t really mind because she was intrigued by the agreeably tropical scent coming from his.
“See those lights over there?” he said. “Those are Major Isles. They make up the archipelago where Agatha does most of her business.”
“I see,” she whispered. A moment passed in which they both stared at the archipelago and then Lottie sighed.
“What’s wrong?” said a perhaps too concerned Calix. “Is it your burns again?”
“Oh, no. Nothing like that,” she reassured him. “It’s just…I’ve never been this far from home before. There has always been a five mile radius on all rescue scenarios and kidnap situations.”
“How many of those have there been?” Calix asked.
“About two per year since I was eleven,” Lottie said. “Give or take.”
Calix’s jaw made a slight swishing sound as it struck the sand below him. After a moment of awkward staring he closed his mouth and said, “That seems excessive.”
“You get used to it,” Lottie shrugged. “Besides I’ve picked up some useful life experience from them, so it’s not all bad.”
“I’ll say,” Calix exclaimed. “The way you fought those dragons…I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Lottie blushed and was thankful that all that was left of the fire was smoke and ashes so Calix couldn’t see her cheeks redden. “Thanks,” she whispered.
For a while they sat in silence listening to the waves crash over the beach. Agatha’s wine had gotten the better of Godric and he now laid on his side with this limbs twitching ever so often as he dreamed of chasing butterflies. Agatha shook her head and stretched out beside him to look up at the stars. A cool breeze whipped in from the ocean and Lottie caught herself snuggling closer to Calix. Without thinking he wrapped his arm around her and instead of punching him in the nose, Lottie sighed and laid her head on his shoulder. This surprised them both and in order to break the tension Lottie asked him how long it would take them to get home.
“Four days,” he said. “Less if Godric consents to fly us there.”
“I hope he doesn’t,” she said. “I like the idea of having an adventure.”
“I’d hardly call this an adventure,” Calix said as he adjusted slightly to make himself more comfortable. His arm had fallen asleep but he didn’t want to remove it from Lottie’s shoulders. “Besides, don’t you miss your home?”
Lottie sat up and shook some of the sand out of her hair, untangling herself from Calix’s embrace in the process. Calix let out a disappointed sigh that he would have been mortified to know that Lottie had heard. “I don’t think you ever really miss home until you’ve been somewhere else for a long time,” she said.
“Oh. Right,” Calix said as he turned from her and hugged his knees. Lottie couldn’t see him, but she sensed that the boy was upset. She placed a sympathetic hand on his shoulder and turned him to face her. “How long have you been away?” she asked him.
Calix cocked his head to the side and did some quick math in his head. “Almost six years,” he said at last.
Lottie’s jaw made a slight swishing sound as it struck the sand below her. After a few moments of awkward staring, she managed to choke out the word “Why?”
“I’m not sure there even is a home for me to return to,” Calix confessed and Lottie thought she saw the beginning of a tear glistening in the corner of his eye. Calix took a deep break and said, “My country was attacked by a neighboring kingdom we thought were our friends. I lost everything. My crown, my home…my family… My sisters were five and six years old.”
The tear slid down his face and Lottie knew better than to wipe it away. Instead she took Calix’s hand. “Are they…” Lottie whispered.
“I don’t know,” Calix said. “I hope so, but as far as I know I’m the only living member of the royal family. And even that in name only. I barely escaped with my horse and the clothes on my back.” He glanced around as if noticing the horse missing for the first time. “And now I seemed to have lost those as well.”
Lottie laughed. She couldn’t stop herself and immediately regretted it. As it turned out she wasn’t the only one who found it funny. Calix laughed. He wasn’t sure if he found his situation particularly humorous or if he was laughing at Lottie’s reaction, but he laughed nonetheless. They both laughed and for a few brief minutes they forgot about violent invasions and fire breathing dragons.