Read A Tale of Two Castles Online

Authors: Gail Carson Levine

A Tale of Two Castles (7 page)

Chapter Twelve

I
wheezed, “Today, in Two Castles”—I swallowed and forced my voice out—“and only in Two Castles, the Great, the Unfathomable—”

Count Jonty Um boomed, “I wish to speak with IT.”

“Masteress Meenore is in the square, um . . . Count Um.”

“Count Jonty Um. We will go together.” He placed a heavy hand over the crown of my capless head. A finger touched each of my ears. If he pushed down, I'd sink into the street up to my nose.

“Make way,” he cried. “Ogre passing. Girl passing.”

Everyone stared. The scribe mouthed words at me:
Take care.
How could I take care? The ogre could squeeze my head like a lemon.

Count Jonty Um edged along to avoid upsetting tables and bringing down displays. He'd captured me, but he took care with the townspeople's stalls. Today's dog, a brown shepherd on a short chain, managed not to knock over anything, either. Gradually my heart slowed to a gallop. Because of the ogre's hand, I feared to turn my head, but I moved my eyes from side to side.

Everywhere, people froze to watch us. I saw pity for me on many faces, but no one challenged him. Cats stared, too, from between their owners' legs, from stall tabletops, from windowsills. I heard hisses.

In the market square Count Jonty Um cried, “Ogre and girl going to the dragon. Make way.”

By the time we reached Masteress Meenore, ITs customers had fled. IT swept one wing in front of ITself, then to the side, and lowered ITs head in a definite, almost graceful bow.

Did bowing, rather than curtsying, make IT a he?

I ducked out from under the ogre's hand, and he let me go. IT raised both wings at the elbow, put one back foot behind the other, and dipped, in a definite curtsy.

A bow and a curtsy. He-she-IT.

IT said, “Your Lordship . . .”

Count Jonty Um bowed, too, a quick bend at the waist that meant
I am a count, you a mere masteress.

“Your lordship has not come for skewers. We will consult at my lair. Lodie will lead you.”


E
lodie, if you please, Masteress.” I wanted the count to know my proper name.

IT took the basket of coins in a claw, leaped into the air, and flew, barely clearing Count Jonty Um's head. IT circled low, twice, three times. Why was IT lingering?

I deduced and proclaimed, “See, one and all, how Masteress Meenore is sought by nobility. IT will answer your questions, too. Schedule your own meeting with the nimble-witted, farseeing Masteress Meenore.”

IT flew off in the direction of the lair. I picked up the basket of skewers. “This way, Count Jonty Um.”

“Make way!” he cried. He put his hand on my shoulder.

I gathered my courage. “You can let go, Count Jonty Um. I won't run away.”

His hand dropped. We left the square, watched by everyone. When we reached a less crowded street, he boomed, “Thank you for telling me to let go. You told me to wait in line, too. I like truthful people, Elodie.”

I looked up. The line of his lips had softened, his face was no longer red, and his eyes seemed wider. An easier, more relaxed face made me feel easier, too.

“This way.”

A robin landed on his shoulder, ruffled its feathers, and stayed. Cats might hate him, but not all animals. The dog seemed comfortable at his side.

He must have noticed that I was rushing to stay ahead of him, because he stopped. “You can ride on my shoulders.”

What would I hold on to up there? His great ears? What if I fell and pulled an ear off with me, or grabbed his silver pendant and swung from his neck like a bell clapper? “No, thank you.”

He reddened again. I had insulted him. He set off at a slower pace, a considerate ogre. I tried to think how to apologize without making the insult worse.

He sneezed hugely. “Sulfur.”

The robin flew away.

“We're near the lair.” He liked frankness. “Count Jonty Um, I was afraid of falling off your shoulder and pulling your ear down with me.”

He began to smile. The smile broadened, mouth half open, white upper teeth shining, bathing me in sweetness.

How changed he was! Almost as if he'd shape-shifted.

The smile faded and his expression dulled again, but I had lost my fear of him.

The lair's doorway was wide enough to admit us side by side. Masteress Meenore faced us from just inside. The count sneezed again.

ITs smoke tinted from white to blue. I deduced IT thought ITs odor had caused the sneeze, as was likely.

“Welcome, Your Lordship,” IT said.

“Thank you.” He let go of the dog's chain and she trotted away, snuffling the floor.

IT stiffened, meaning, I was certain, that as soon as the dog and the ogre left, the lair would be scoured again. The animal made straight for the fireplace bench, where IT had placed bowls and refreshments—apples, pears, dried dates, and figs.

The count went to the animal. “Shoo, Sheeyen.”

She loped to the door and curled up on the threshold.

“May I take your cloak, Your Lordship?” I said, without considering how enormous it was.

He put it in my arms, but I wasn't overwhelmed. The wool was so fine and light that the cloak weighed no more than my own. I folded it and placed it atop the coin basket by the hearth.

IT had moved the table between the fireplace bench and the fire. On the tabletop ITs precious pillows lay in a row.

“Please, Your Lordship, seat yourself.” IT gestured at the table. “It is sturdy. You will not break it.”

The count sat, his back to the fire, leaning forward, balancing himself so that the table didn't take his full bulk. He sneezed again and blew his nose politely on the sleeve of his tunic, which today was evergreen silk.

Masteress Meenore's smoke darkened to slate blue. IT lowered ITself on ITs haunches between the cupboard and Count Jonty Um.

IT had positioned the stool for me on the ogre's left. I sat. Deftly, IT sliced a pear and an apple and fanned the slices into a circle in an empty bowl. In the center IT placed a fig. The result was a fruit daisy. I had never seen such elegance.

“Partake, Your Lordship.” IT gave the bowl to the count and gestured at the other refreshments. “Help yourself, Elodie.”

“Thank you, Masteress.” And thank you for my name. With my little knife I sliced half an apple and half a pear, some slices almost all peel and others almost all fruit, the peel ones for me, the fruit ones for sharing. As the lowliest here, my portion should be the most meager. I took figs and dates as well, all for sharing. They were delicacies.

Masteress Meenore helped ITself, too. I speared a date with my knife and placed it in the count's bowl. He gave me his fig, which was a kindness.

Mother, Father, Albin! Look! Albin, I will remember this for my mansioning and forever: the smallness of me, the hugeness of them, these two creatures, each with teeth the size of ax blades, sharing fruit, the meekest of food.

Our snack would have been a silent one if not for IT, who held forth on the history of castle building. I learned about the progression from castles on low ground to castles on high, from wooden castles to stone, from few windows to few windows and many arrow slits.

I nodded and said nothing. Count Jonty Um said nothing as well and hardly even nodded. I wished he would speak. I wanted to hear an ogre's thoughts on any subject: castles or cottages or the weather. Or being an ogre. Or shape-shifting. Especially the last two.

But he seemed to live inside a cocoon of silence, the air around him thick with it.

“In sum, the lords of badly defended castles rarely lived to build better ones. Have you eaten your fill, Count Jonty Um?”

He nodded. I hadn't eaten my fill, but I moved the bowls to the floor by the hearth and returned to my seat.

IT held up a claw. “I must have the details, of course, but I know why you've come, Your Lordship. You are in danger.”

Chapter Thirteen

H
e stood fast. “No danger.”

ITs tail tapped the floor, an irritated sound.

After a full minute, during which the count stared over my masteress's head, he sat again. “No danger. Nesspa, my dog, is missing.” He gestured at the dog, who still slept by the door. “Sheeyen isn't mine. She belongs to the castle.”

And the castle belonged to him. But I understood. Sheeyen wasn't his pet.

“Your missing dog is but one aspect of your danger.” ITs smoke tinged violet.

Count Jonty Um folded his arms. “Only Nesspa concerns you.”

Masteress Meenore reared up on ITs hind legs. The tail thumps were louder; the smoke darkened. “I am not a sorcerer, Your Lordship. I cannot deduce from nothing. If you conceal your circumstances, I will return to toasting bread and cheese.”

Count Jonty Um stood to leave.

I didn't want him to leave us and perhaps lose his pet forever. “What does Nesspa look like? Is it a girl or a boy dog?”

“A boy. Big, up to my knee. His coat is gold.”

“He has a beautiful black nose,” I said. “I saw him.”

The count crouched almost to my level. “When he sees me, he wags his tail. When he sleeps, he snores, like this.” He growled in the back of his throat.

I held my breath. For a moment I thought he was going to turn into a dog, but he sat again and didn't shape-shift.

IT sank back down. “Might he have run away?”

His Lordship shook his head and sat again. “He never has. He is six years old.” He paused. “Things have happened, but no danger. Only hatred of an ogre.”

I nodded.

“The hatred is nothing new,” IT said. “What
is
new?”

“Someone is stealing from me. Not just taking Nesspa.” He paused again. I suspected he thought out each sentence before saying it. “Stealing things. Linens, a wall hanging, a harness, three knives.”

“Ah,” IT said.

“Someone is poaching. Maybe the same person. I don't allow hunting in my woods. My deer and rabbits used to come to me. Now they're shy. Two mornings ago when I awakened, Nesspa was gone. He always sleeps on my bed.”

“A servant?” IT asked.

“They're loyal.”

I swear I felt IT think a snort at the certainty. “No one has sent you a ransom note.”

“No one.” He opened the drawstring on the leather purse at his waist and drew out a silver, which glinted between his thumb and forefinger.

Masteress Meenore ignored it.

“When you find Nesspa, I will give you three more silvers and one for your assistant.”

For me? A silver? Two more and I could apprentice.

“My fee for finding your dog is two coppers.”

“The silvers . . .”

They both turned to me.

“Never mind.” But I wanted my silver.

“If I discover the people or the person endangering you,” IT said, “and put an end to your risk, then I will expect payment in silver.”

And a coin for me, too. Say it!

IT didn't.

“Why do you say I'm in danger, Meenore?”

“The hatred, which is nothing new, as I said, has always been tempered by fear. Now someone, or more than one, is unafraid. That”—IT spread ITs claws, palms up—“is your danger.”

I felt frightened, but I wasn't sure why. How could anyone hurt him?

“Tell me, Your Lordship, what is the reason for tomorrow's feast?”

He looked down at his hands. “I want people to visit me. And His Highness will make an announcement.”

My masteress waited in vain for an explanation of the announcement.

His Lordship met ITs eyes. “Most of all I want them to come.”

“Ah. Are you permitting your guests to bring cats?”

He reddened and nodded.

Why? Cats
were
a danger.

IT said, “To persuade fools to visit you, you agreed to foolish demands.”

What did IT mean?

His Lordship mumbled—actually a quieter roar—“There will be dogs in the hall.”

“Naturally. If they may bring a weapon, you must have a defense.”

Oh. His guests had refused to come without their cats.

He clasped his hands so tight the knuckles whitened. “I want them to stop fearing me. And hating me. My steward suggested a feast. If they come and are safe, I hope the fear and hate will stop.”

But why did they fear and hate him? I had lost my fright by being with him for only a short while.

IT stood. “I will endeavor to find your dog and save your life. Elodie will live in your castle for now, as my eyes and ears.”

Lambs and calves! I went to the cupboard for my things.

IT added, “Take care, Elodie. Count, His Majesty and Her Highness are visiting you, are they not?”

“Yes.”

Oh no, the king!

“Elodie, His Highness is economical. He has no fear of an ogre and likes the count's wood better than his own to keep him warm, the count's food better than his own to feed his gluttony.”

“The girl Elodie is to reside in my castle?”

What was wrong with that?

“Good.”

I smiled as I folded my spare kirtle into my satchel. If he liked, I could teach him the mansioner's tales.

He stood. “What will she do?”

“Your kitchen will need extra hands for the feast. Elodie, your hands will do if you can peel an apple, not merely weep over it.”

Naturally I could. I drew tight the satchel strings. “But Masteress, the town knows I'm your assistant.”

“Tomorrow, as I cook my skewers, I will mention that I let the count borrow you for a handsome sum.”

Only serfs could be loaned out, and I was no serf. I hated for the count and the entire town to think me one.

“Your Lordship,” IT said, “Elodie must have the run of the castle and your grounds. Let your steward know.”

Count Jonty Um took his cloak and pulled it around him.

“Elodie, this is your charge.” IT raised ITs snout and blew a long column of white smoke. “Seek the dog, yes. But above all, be alert to danger to His Lordship. Raise the alarm if you are alarmed. Do not hold back.”

“What about the poaching?” I asked.

“Leave the poaching to me. And if Nesspa is not inside the castle, I will find him outside.”

Count Jonty Um crossed the lair and picked up the end of the dog's chain.

“Farewell, Your Lordship. Elodie, I will come to the outer ward at dawn tomorrow for your report.” IT raised ITs eyebrow ridges. “Do you know where the outer ward is?”

“The area between the castle and the walls that surround it?”

“Just so, although these walls are called curtains. Do not disgrace me.”

I thought of my disappointing history as a caretaker of geese. And now I was to caretake an ogre!

Outside, clouds had begun to roll in. His Lordship started down Lair Street, to my surprise. I had expected him to follow the ridge and avoid the bustle of the center of town. After a few steps, he slowed to my pace.

I walked on his right, Sheeyen on his left. The street was deserted here, so he didn't have to call his warning.

“I'm not a serf, Your Lordship.”

He nodded.

“Your Lordship?”

He stopped.

“May I ask . . .”

“Yes.”

I breathed in deeply. “Why don't they like you?”

He sat on his haunches. I still had to look up to see into his eyes.

“My father was not a kind ogre.” He shook his head. “My mother was not kind to people, either. They didn't eat anyone. We don't eat humans. But they liked to frighten when they shifted shape. Fifteen years ago a child died. It was an accident, but it was my father's fault.” He watched my face.

I didn't blame the son!

“The townsfolk think I am like my parents. They don't know any other ogres.”

So he wanted to show them the difference, and they didn't want to see. I touched his cloak over his knee. “I understand.”

We continued on, passing burghers' homes. A young woman with a broom stepped out of a doorway. As soon as she saw me, she hissed, “Save yourself. Run!” and darted back inside.

I reached up and took the count's hand. We proceeded past the next house and the next. A cat crossed the street in front of us, its head turned toward the count. Sheeyen trotted along silently.

“Nesspa would have barked.”

The midafternoon bells tolled. The stalls and the throngs began.

“Make way. Ogre and girl.”

“Not captive,” I cried. “New servant at the castle.”

He turned on Sabow Street, which led to the market square. In the square he let my hand go and made purchases—first a string sack, then food and more food: lamb pottage, fish golden with saffron (the rarest spice in the kingdom), boiled eggs, legs of roasted capons, pickled blue carrots, cheese, and bread. How my stomach rumbled.

No one hated him when he opened his purse. People nodded, chatted, thanked him.

My mouth watered. When he stopped the roving marchpane seller, my mouth became almost a fountain. He bought a dozen pieces and paid out two dozen coppers.

With a bulging sack, he started up Daycart Way and resumed his cry of “Make way.” He continued blaring until we reached the wealthy homes again and the crowd had thinned to nothing.

We passed through the town's south gate and continued on. To the east, the mansioners' carts caught the light of the setting sun. As we took the north fork, I heard a shout followed by a laugh.

“They're rehearsing.” And I am in my own mansioner's tale, I thought, accompanying an ogre to his castle, where the drama will occur.

When we had passed perhaps a quarter mile beyond the fork, with empty, harvested fields to our left and right, the count stopped.

“Your Lordship?”

“Watch. Do not be afraid. Everyone likes this.” Eyes closed, he let Sheeyen's chain go and raised his arms in a gesture of command, like Zeus in a myth, calling forth lightning. His mouth widened in a silent scream, and his eyes bulged.

I
was
afraid! Had an arrow struck him from behind? I ran around him. No arrow, but he was clearly in pain. Sheeyen sat on her haunches and howled. I picked up her chain.

He shook from side to side and forward and back, becoming indistinct, a blur of motion—a shrinking blur. He was my height, then smaller, smaller still.

Other books

The Debt 6 by Kelly Favor
Worth a Thousand Words by Noel, Cherie
The Rifle by Gary Paulsen
The Maestro's Mistress by Angela Dracup
Odd Hours by Dean Koontz
A Diet to Die For by Joan Hess
The Inquisitor's Apprentice by Chris Moriarty