Van Ella walked through the castle gates into a wonderland. Her eyes cast upward as her mouth hung open in sheer awe as she tried to take in everything that was going on in the courtyard of her Mentor’s castle.
At first, she thought she was hallucinating. The inside of the courtyard was far larger than the entire castle could have been from the outside. She walked along a golden thoroughfare with silver, gold, and bronze statues every few feet on both sides. Each one was a marvel.
Fantastic creatures moved in slow motion - playing out some silent battle, or clawing the air in a quiet display of ferocity. Silver dragons breathed cold shiny plumes of silver flames while twisting and turning as if in flight. Brave warriors all in spotless gold swung dazzling golden swords to fend off slow, invisible foes.
Beyond the twin rows of sparkling slow motion statues were tremendous gateways set at even intervals into the polished white walls. Each one seemed to open to another place more fantastic than the one beside it.
In one gateway, Van Ella beheld a desolate red landscape of fiery volcanoes, another gateway shown a scintillating forest filled with fireflies and what could only be blue and purple fairies dancing about under a starry sky. In another a tall stout ship with powerful sails was being tossed about mercilessly in a tremendous storm. The waves crashed silently against the portal’s edge as if it were impenetrable glass.
Above her an immense gallery was held up by pillars made of glowing ruby as if they were in an impossibly large cathedral. She was astounded to realize that the paintings in the ceiling were also moving in a slow motion cacophony of magical battles: knights rescuing damsels, and fierce monsters silently dispatching their prey.
Brand caught her eye as he had also stopped to assess her reaction. He grinned wide and raised his arms with a flourish.
“Well, what do you think?” He inquired, an expectant look on his face under his floppy hat.
“I have no words to describe what I’m seeing. This is the most amazing experience I’ve ever had.” she half whispered.
Suddenly, all the stress, all the splendor, all the tiredness caught up with Van Ella. Tears started to flow freely down her cheeks.
“Why?” She said abruptly.
“Why did you pick me?” Van Ella said and dropped to her knees. Sparrow meowed as the little cat hopped out of the way from below her legs. Van Ella looked down at her dingy Bonding day clothes. She’d forgotten the hat in the carriage.
“I’m just a nobody. Not even my Aunt and Uncle wanted me around.” More tears flowed.
Brand put his fist to his mouth in a thoughtful gesture, while holding his arm under the elbow with the other.
“I know a frightful number of things, my Bonded. How many hairs atop the head of the great Cyclopes of Marginalia. How much Bright Winds to combine with Ever Dawn to create a potion to send you to the stars. The precise amount of cat food to keep Sparrow from pestering me to death.” He looked down at the cat with an arched eyebrow.
“I’m hungry!” Sparrow chirped.
Despite herself, Van Ella burst out laughing. And crying still.
Brand stepped up to her and went down on one knee. Van Ella could smell the leather and the hint of cinnamon.
“And I also know an outstanding apprentice when I see her. And that apprentice is you.” He took her hand firmly and drew her up.
She sniffled loudly and wiped her nose with her dingy sleeve. Her stomach rumbled. She looked around again at the thousand wonders moving slowly all around her.
She half smiled. “How - how much food does it take to satisfy her?” Van Ella picked up the cat and held her close.
“Why isn’t it obvious?” Brand said archly. “There is no amount of food that will stop her incessant pestering .” Brand brushed a hand over the cat’s head. Sparrow nodded vigorously.
Van Ella laughed again till she started to cough. The tears were no longer of sadness.
“Come, my Apprentice. Let’s go feed Sparrow and show you where you’ll be staying. ”
He turned to the black horse behind them and said “Mane, thank you for getting us home safely. Go take a rest.”
With that, the reins fell from the horse and in a burst of motion the black stallion galloped through a nearby portal. Van Ella could see rolling fields and lots of green grass.
“Thank you.” Van Ella said suddenly. “Thank you for picking me.”
Brand scoffed good naturedly. “You won’t thank me much when we get started with your apprenticeship. You will work hard, and probably curse the day you met me.” His electric blue eyes turned a shade of purple. He smiled.
Van Ella’s empty stomach turned flip flops and she returned a sheepish smile.
It had been a week.
And all Van Ella had been doing after settling in to her small, modest room at the top of one of the smaller towers was sweep.
The courtyard had been something out of a fairy tale. The castle itself was something else entirely. It was a hopeless maze of walkways and corridors, open air lobbies, tiny gardens, and doors.
So many doors all over the place.
Big doors, tiny doors only a mouse might consider using, large square doors made of heavy steel with bolts thicker than Van Ella’s arm, and countless others. Some doors were even set into the floor, or impossibly high up on a vaulted ceiling.
Van Ella and Brand had set at a grand table that first night, while stiff and proper butlers brought food and prim stately women poured delicious drinks into silver and gold cups.
“Are they - are they real?” Van Ella had asked, gesturing at the servants. Brand had changed out of his red leather clothes and wore close-fitting black pants and shirt, with an ornate purple vest. Van Ella tried not to stare too closely at the black clothing, as she though she could see stars twinkling like a night sky within them.
“Real? But of course they are real” Brand gestured to the closest butler. “It is a high honor. Men and women from all over the worlds - ah world -come here to serve and to learn great and wonderful things. Isn’t that right, Jeeves?”
The butler rolled his eyes. “The name is Reginald, sir. You’ve known me for years. But you are right.” He turned to Van Ella.
“While serving master Brand is indeed an honor, given all that he has done for my world” -Brand shot him a sharp glance and shook his head imperceptibly -“land,” Reginald continued smoothly “It is a great delight to see that he has finally taken an Apprentice.”
The butler smiled - his impassive face melting to something much warmer and gentle - before returning to his stiff posture.
“I love Reginald. He feeds me!” Sparrow had chirped, and everyone had laughed.
Van Ella coughed. The dust of the room she was sweeping brought her thoughts back to the here and now.
“Why am I wasting my time sweeping room after room in this huge castle?” Van Ella said to herself. “After all, don’t the maids and the butlers keep everything in order?” she muttered.
Her room had been spotless when she had arrived. Her bed had been neatly made with plain clean white linen, her new desk was spare, with a few quill pens, some paper, and an ink well, and there was a wardrobe , to her surprise, filled with clean, neatly pressed clothing of fine cotton, leather, and even silk. Somehow, her Master had learned she liked lavender , as most of the clothing was one shade of light purple or the other. She had squealed in delight to see clothing - actual clothing! Somehow the magic of flying, talking cats, flying horses, and magical castles had failed to really bring home to her that this was magic. Real magic. But having clothes of her own, not hand me downs or second hand rags re-sewn into clothes, made her realize her life going forward was going to be different.
That is, if she ever got to learning any magic .....
Van Ella sighed and began again to sweep the dusty floor of this brightly lit hallway. Sparrow sauntered up and sat a few feet in front of her and casually began licking her paws. Right where Van Ella needed to sweep.
“Hi Sparrow. I need to sweep there little kitty.” Van Ella started.
Sparrow stopped licking her paw and looked at Van Ella with heavy lidded eyes. “No you don’t ” The black cat said slowly, as if Van Ella was in trouble .
Van Ella regarded the cat. “Oh, but I was told to sweep this hall until the floor was spotless. Because, I guess my master needs another hand cleaning, instead of an apprentice.” She half said to herself.
“You’re so funny Van Ella.” Sparrow chirped. “You’re not supposed to be sweeping. You’re supposed to be in the Main hall for your first lesson”
Van Ella’s face paled. When? Right now? But -” her eyes went wide.
“No silly, an hour ago.” Sparrow mewed.
“What?! Why didn’t anyone tell me?” She cried.
“Oh I was supposed to, but I was sleepy so I had a nap.” Sparrow said, then began licking her paw again.
Sparrow jumped at the sound of a broom clattering to the stone floor and footsteps running away down the long hallway.