Not a word was exchanged between Ellie and Gerald as they once again traversed the cobblestone streets of Haven. The encounter at Mayor Bedelia’s estate left an impression that neither of them would soon forget. It was clear that the town’s residential system was strict, but Ellie could only ponder why. Instead, her thoughts returned to Bedelia calling her a ‘demon’. She only heard stories about them from priests and visiting adventurers, so much like monsters, Ellie always thought demons just existed in fairy tales. Was that not the case in the Night Realm? Given the severity of Bedelia’s accusation, Ellie had little reason to think otherwise.
A defeated air still lingered about the pair as they traveled on. And yet, Ellie couldn’t help but chuckle at how Gerald’s legs and backside looked as he waddled over the stones.
“What’s so funny, Miss Ellie?” He glared back at her.
“I’m sorry, Gerald. It’s just the way you waddle is awfully cute.”
A bit of levity was just what they needed after their earlier social fumble. Though while it proved to lighten his mood, it was clear that Gerald was still consumed by his own thoughts.
He stopped after they turned a corner and approached an establishment two doors down.
“Here we are, Miss Ellie; the Duck and Dory.”
Ellie squinted at the sign hanging above the door. Painted in bright colors was a duck with its wings spread out as it chased after a blue fish that, for some reason or another, had legs like a person.
“Why does the fish have legs?”
“That’s what stands out to you?” Gerald asked. “Not that the duck has teeth and red eyes?”
“I don’t know how things are here in the Night Realm, but where I come from, fish don’t have legs.”
“Bet ducks have teeth and red eyes back home then, eh?”
Gerald hopped up the step and looked to Ellie as he scratched at the door, implying that he wanted her to open it for him. How did he manage to get inside when he apparently frequented the place, she wondered? Did he rap on the door with his little paw until it opened, or did he try and wedge his rump through the crack underneath?
Either way, Ellie opened the door only to be immediately greeted by two patrons on their way out; a dwarf and a stumpy little frog man. She stepped to the side and begged her pardon as they gave a polite nod. Gerald had also scurried out of the way and seated himself atop Ellie’s shoe, then scuttled off and into the tavern.
The interior was simple enough; well lit, a bar counter in the center that faced a wall of bottled alcohol, and a kitchen beyond that. In a horseshoe shape throughout the room were tables of various sizes with an inconsistent number of chairs at each.
The atmosphere was calmer than expected from a tavern, as most patrons took to socializing quietly among themselves. Only a rowdy few at the bar counter shared in boisterous tales and raucous laughter.
Gerald led Ellie to a table in the corner and hopped first to the chair and then to the tabletop. He waved down a large man at the bar counter who had more hair on his face than his head and was otherwise engaged in serving and socializing with customers. The man—appearing to be the owner—returned the wave and grabbed a crate before making his way over.
“Good evenin’, Gerald,” he said, and placed the crate top-down on the chair beside him. “Surprised to see you back so soon.”
“Oh, you know me.” Gerald leapt onto the crate and plopped down on his backside. “Never content to stay home for too long before venturing about our great land in search of my next adventure.”
Ellie had hardly a moment to ponder Gerald’s suspicious response before the owner stared at her as though he had seen a ghost. He stayed like this for only a moment, then smiled sheepishly.
“Who’s your friend?” he asked.
“She’s a representative from the castle!” Gerald slammed his tiny fist down on the crate. Having spent plenty of time berating himself for coming up with something so unlikely in the first place, he was beginning to have enough of these questions.
Ellie and the owner exchanged a look and stifled their laughter at Gerald’s small yet adorable outburst.
“The usual charcuterie board you have when you return from one of your adventures?” the owner asked.
“No, no, I don’t have the appetite for it tonight. Just a sausage and cheese board will do.”
He gave Gerald a salute, then disappeared to the kitchen behind the bar counter.
“Say, Gerald…” Ellie tapped her fingers on the table. “Is there a reason why you can’t tell anyone how we actually met?”
His voice was monotonous and his pause was long. Ellie waited patiently for him to continue, but it became apparent that he had no plans to.
Gerald leaned his head back and released the biggest, most exasperated sigh that he could muster.
“I did something that I really, really shouldn’t have. A big time no-no. Something that will make me go down in history as the first rat to mess up this badly. You’ll look up ‘mistake’ in the dictionary and there will be a drawing of my stinky face. Does that make sense?”
“Was it because of me?” Ellie sulked in her chair.
“No, Miss Ellie, and please don’t think it’s you that I’m annoyed with. Rather I’m bothered by the whole situation and my fumble back at Mayor Bedelia’s.”
The two remained quiet as they waited for the owner to return with their food. Though Gerald had given his assurance, Ellie couldn’t shake the feeling that she was responsible. He had clearly done something wrong by bringing her here, otherwise he wouldn’t be trying to hide their meeting from everyone who asked. Of course, he simply could have left her behind, but Gerald wouldn’t have been put in that situation if Ellie had just left when he told her to. Or better yet, if she hadn’t given into her curiosity like she often was wont to do and stayed home.
Gerald stared at the forlorn look on Ellie’s face.
“Your family is the one that lives by the orchard, right?”
“It’s a nice little home, but I usually pass by there at dawn or after dusk, so I never get a very good look at it.”
“Do you have any family?” Ellie leaned on her elbows and folded her hands near her face.
“Oh, do I ever!” Gerald adjusted himself in his seat with a wiggle. “I have my mother and father, of course, but I also have nine other siblings!”
“Nine!” Ellie repeated. “That must be absolute chaos.”
“You better believe it! It’s not easy being the eldest. I’m basically a third parent to them.”
“I’m also the oldest, so I understand that feeling. But nine? Nine siblings?! At least I can count all mine on one hand—or paw!”
Hearty laughter erupted from the two and dissipated the oppressive gloom that hung over them moments prior. The owner then returned and set down a board with two types of cheeses and sausages, a wooden cup of water for Ellie, and a tiny cup of water for Gerald. From inside his waistcoat, Gerald retrieved a small, rat-sized pouch, and from inside that he pulled out the tiniest gemstone and placed it in the owner’s palm.
“Is that how everyone pays around here?” Ellie asked, watching the owner return to the counter.
“Not quite. We rats do a lot of tunneling and come across gemstones that we refine to smaller sizes. After all, we’re too small to be carrying around bags of coins, so we’re allowed to use the gems as currency and the tall ones simply exchange them at the bank or sell them to jewelers.”
“Tall ones?” Ellie repeated.
“I see. Well, I suppose that all makes sense.”
Ellie cut off a few slices of cheese and sausage for herself, leaving the ones that were already cut for Gerald. The taste was unlike what she expected and she brought her hand over her mouth in surprise. The flavor was sublime, but something about it was different, though not in a bad way. Honestly, Ellie thought it might be better than anything she’d tried back home, but she just couldn’t quite put her finger on why it tasted different.
It wasn’t long before only crumbs remained on the board, of which Gerald occasionally reached out for and Ellie pinched up for him.
“Thank you, Gerald, that was a wonderful meal. I guess I was hungrier than I thought.”
“You’re most welcome, Miss Ellie. It really is good food, isn’t it?”
Ellie stood up and pushed in her chair as Gerald hopped down and started for the door. A great yawn emerged from her when she stepped in the street, leaving Ellie to wonder just how late into the night it was. It wasn’t often that she stayed up much past eleven o’clock, and now her tiredness was rapidly catching up after not one, but two meals.
“Ohh, I ate too much,” Gerald groaned. “May I ride on your shoulder, Miss Ellie? I’ll direct you where to go.”
“Of course.” She knelt to one knee and reached out her hand, but Gerald instead leapt to her shoulder by himself and let out an even louder groan than the last.
“I shouldn’t have done that with such a full tummy. Remind me to take up on your offer to be lifted next time.”
“I’ll be sure to,” she chuckled. “So, where are we headed?”
“Southward,” he pointed from her shoulder.
Ellie made her way in the direction that Gerald instructed and recognized parts of the town as streets they had traveled earlier that night. More time must have passed than she realized, as there were far fewer people bustling around than before. In the time that it took them to reach Haven’s south edge, only a handful of people remained after the others had disappeared into buildings or down side streets.
A breeze picked up as Ellie entered Haven’s outskirts. To her right was the field beside the forest that she had been in only a couple of hours before. Now she faced the black castle at the end of the road, which grew ever more imposing with each step. It was definitely no closer than a mile from Haven, but even from that distance it felt so intimidating.
Ellie swallowed nervously and smoothed out the skirt of her dress.
“So, we’re really going to the castle, then?”
“Mm.” Gerald began fidgeting his paws.
“It’s awfully frightening looking, don’t you think?”
“It’s not all that scary, Miss Ellie. Though maybe I’m used to it, since it’s home.”
“That’s where you live?”
“Well, technically I live under it. But I’m no stranger to the castle proper.”
Ellie had more than enough time with her thoughts on the road to the castle. If it really was Gerald’s home, then certainly it couldn’t be all bad. But what else could she possibly expect inside?
“Is there anything I should be prepared for with this whole… asylum verification thingy?”
A pained noise squealed out of Gerald.
“You should just leave all of the talking to me, Miss Ellie. I think that would be for the best.”
“But what happens if this doesn’t go well?”
Gerald was silent as he pondered an answer.
“Let’s just hope it does. If it doesn’t, well, I’ll think of something.”
“I’m starting to get the impression that I really should not be here,” Ellie sighed, and received no response.
To their regret, the walk was over almost as soon as it began, and Ellie found herself at the bottom of the long stairs leading to the castle’s front gate. She stood in awe of the structure looming over her and standing three rather tall stories high. A legion of windows lined the walls, some of which shone with light but most of which were dark. On either side of the stairs were paths that followed the front end of the castle before disappearing behind both corners.
To the right was a carriage, but no horses nor coachman. For that matter, there wasn’t even a stable and only made the presence of the carriage the first of many of the castle’s curiosities.
Ellie turned back toward the stairs and sighed at the sheer number of them.
“I think I’ve done quite enough walking for the day, but I suppose I can muster one last climb.” She started up the stairs and realized that for how much he seemed to like talking before, Gerald had been awfully quiet for some time.
“Are you all right, Gerald?”
“No, Miss Ellie. But this is just how it is, I suppose.”
“All things considered, you’re much more worried than I am. It can’t be that bad, can it?”
Not a peep came from Gerald, and soon the pair were faced with the grand castle gate. Ellie raised a fist to give a knock, but Gerald broke his silence and called to her in an almost desperate voice.
“There’s no need to knock! Just… open the door.”
She stared at him briefly and then reached for the handles. Nothing happened when she pulled, so Ellie tried again, this time with such force that her arms shook. But the door remained closed.
“Oh, goodness,” she chuckled. “I know I’m stronger than this. I have those gardener arms, after all.” Ellie’s attempt at lightening the mood only worked on herself.
“Of course it’s locked.” Gerald hopped down from Ellie’s shoulder and approached a tiny door built inside of the larger one. Ellie hadn’t noticed it and watched with glee as Gerald reached inside of his waistcoat, removed an equally as tiny key, and promptly inserted it in the lock of the cute little door.
“Just a moment, Miss Ellie.”
Gerald disappeared behind the gate, and then began the sound of shifting locks on the other side. One, two, then three locks were opened. A moment later, a fourth. Just when Ellie thought it was over, there was a fifth. She waited for a sixth lock to open, but instead came Gerald’s voice.
“You should be able to open it now.”
Ellie grabbed the door handles once more and pulled. Only one side would open, but it was enough to create a gap suitable for her to step inside. Gerald had been standing on the other side in a spot that Ellie considered far too close to her feet for her comfort. Frightened that she would step on him, Ellie shifted awkwardly to one side while still holding the handle. This in turn pulled the gate closed with an ounce too much force, sending a resounding slam echoing throughout the entire castle. Ellie and Gerald cringed, then looked to one another with a simultaneous sigh.
“Well, nothing like making an entrance, I suppose.”
“You’re going to be the death of me, Miss Ellie.”
The foyer stunned Ellie the moment she turned around by greeting her with its dark yet beautiful architecture. Black pillars with intricate gold bases barred the edges of the room and guided attention to a gray and blue marble staircase near the center. It ascended only so many steps before branching off to either side and continuing further to the gold-railed balconies above.
The balconies connected behind the stairs and led to a wall decorated with towering windows. The one in the center stood out among the others, with the lower half being a door that led outside to trees painted in moonlight. Even further above the windows was a walkway that stretched from the west end of the room to the east, but had seemingly no way to reach it from the hall.
Platforms replaced the newels of the stairs on the first floor, and atop them stood bronze statues of men and women wrapped in cloth and holding candelabras in their hands. The countless flickering lights acted as the central point of light in the moody hall. But despite their brilliant light, darkness still yawned down long stretches of corridors on either side of the room and left Ellie feeling as though she were about to be engulfed.
Gerald mumbled and shuffled to the middle of the room. Ellie’s heels clacked loudly on the gray marble floor as she followed behind him, trying carefully to hear what he was saying between steps. But keeping her attention on him for long was nearly impossible with how the incredible room constantly demanded it back. It then occurred to Ellie during her observation that the only sounds she could hear from the castle came solely from the two of them.
“Well, uh, I suppose I should go retrieve my lord,” he stuttered.
“That will be quite unnecessary, Gerald.”
The pair jolted at the sound of the unfamiliar voice trailing down the staircase, though Gerald far more so than Ellie.
“The dreadful sound you made when you slammed shut the front gate would have been enough to wake the entire castle. Being that I was already awake, I saw it upon myself to investigate who would cause such a disturbance.”
Gerald squeaked and scuttled next to Ellie, whose gaze was fixed at the top of the western staircase. Standing beside a statue brandishing candelabras was a tall, pale man dressed in regal garb. Strands of long, wavy black hair tucked behind an elven ear were the only features Ellie managed to take in before she met the glare of the man’s pallid red eyes baring into her soul.