Few words were exchanged between Ellie and Gerald as they made their way through the cobblestone streets of Haven. The encounter at Mayor Bedelia’s estate lingered in their minds; it was clear that the residential system in the town was strict, but Ellie could only ponder why. Her thoughts remained on Bedelia calling her a ‘demon’. She only heard stories about them from adventurers that would visit her mother for concoctions, so Ellie thought nothing more of demons than creatures that existed in fairy tales. Did they really exist here in the Night Realm? She supposed it was possible, given that she barely believed that monster races existed in the first place, and yet here they were.
Ellie broke free of her thoughts when she focused on Gerald. There was still a defeated air about them, but she couldn’t help but chuckle at the way his legs and backside looked as he waddled along. Gerald heard her and glared back over his shoulder.
“What’s so funny, Miss Ellie?”
“I’m sorry, Gerald. It’s just the way you waddle is awfully cute.”
A bit of levity was just what the pair needed after their earlier social fumble. Though, while it lightened his mood, it was clear that Gerald was still consumed by his own thoughts.
He stopped as 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 that hung above the door. Painted in bright colors was a depiction of 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.
Gerald looked back at 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 frequented the place so often, she wondered? Did he rap on the door with his little paw until it opened? Or did he try and wedge his pudgy self through the crack underneath?
Regardless, Ellie opened the door for him and was immediately greeted by two patrons making their way out. She stepped to the side as they nodded to her and begged her pardon, Gerald also having scurried out of the way and seating himself atop Ellie’s shoe before they entered the tavern.
The interior was simple enough, being well lit and consisting of a bar counter in the center, dividing the customers from the bottles of alcohol and the kitchen beyond that. In a horseshoe shape throughout the rest of the room were tables of various sizes with differing numbers of chairs at each. The atmosphere was calmer than one would expect from a tavern as patrons socialized quietly among themselves. Only a rowdy few shared boisterous tales by the bar counter.
Gerald led Ellie to a table in the corner and hopped onto a chair before hopping again to the table’s surface. He looked to the bar counter and waved his paw to a large, balding man that was serving customers. The man, most likely the owner, returned the wave when he saw Gerald and grabbed a crate before making his way over.
“Good evenin’, Gerald,” he said, placing the crate down on the chair beside him. “Surprised to see you back so soon.”
“Oh, you know me.” Gerald leapt onto the crate and sat on his backside. “Finish tasks slow one time and fast the next.”
The owner glanced at Ellie before looking back to Gerald, but immediately turned to her again with a moderately surprised expression.
“Who’s your friend?” he asked.
“She is a representative from the castle!” Gerald had slammed his tiny fist down on the crate, clearly having enough of questions regarding Ellie for the evening.
Ellie and the owner exchanged a look with each other as they stifled a laugh prompted by Gerald’s tiny yet adorable outburst.
“The usual sausage and cheese board, then?” the owner asked.
He nodded and returned to the counter, leaving the two alone.
“Say, Gerald?” Ellie asked.
“Is there a reason why you can’t tell anyone how we actually met?”
His voice was monotonous as he stared at the table. Ellie waited for him to continue, but he clearly had no plans to. She grew hesitant, but her curiosity easily overpowered that.
Gerald leaned his head back and let out the biggest, most exasperated sigh that he possibly could. It wasn’t that he was annoyed with Ellie, but rather the entire situation.
“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 my fault?” Ellie sulked in her chair.
“No, Miss Ellie. It was mine.”
The two were quiet as they waited for the owner to return with their food. Though Gerald assured her that the blame wasn’t hers, Ellie couldn’t shake the feeling that she was indeed responsible. Gerald had clearly done something wrong by bringing her here, otherwise he wouldn’t be trying to hide it from everyone who asked. Sure, he could have left her behind, but he wouldn’t have been put in that situation if Ellie had just left when he told her to.
Gerald stared at her, noticing 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.” Gerald adjusted himself on the crate as he talked.
“Do you have any family, Gerald?” Ellie rested her elbows on the table and folded her hands near her face.
“Oh, do I ever! I have my mother and father, of course, but I also have nine other siblings!”
“Nine!” Ellie repeated. “That must be absolute chaos.”
“Oh, definitely. It’s not easy being the eldest. I’m basically a third parent to them.”
“I’m the oldest, too, so I understand that feeling. But nine? Nine siblings?! At least I can count mine on one hand—or paw!”
Hearty laughter erupted from the two, dissipating the oppressive gloom that hung over them moments prior. The owner returned and placed down a board with two types of cheeses and sausages, as well as wooden cup full of water for Ellie and a tiny cup for Gerald. Gerald reached inside of his waistcoat and pulled out a small, rat-sized pouch. From inside that, he removed an even smaller gemstone and handed it to the owner, who took it happily and returned to the bar.
“Is that how everyone pays around here?” Ellie asked.
“Not quite. We rats tunnel for these tiny gemstones near our home and are allowed to use them as currency. We can’t carry around more than a few normal coins, you see, but people can exchange these gems at the bank.”
“I suppose that makes sense.”
Ellie reached for the knife and cut off a few slices of cheese and sausage for herself, leaving the ones that were already cut for Gerald. She brought her hand to her mouth in surprise after sampling them, having not expected the food to taste as good as it did. Between that and how quickly he inhaled his own food, Ellie now understood why Gerald was a little on the pudgy side.
It wasn’t long before the two of them had finished off the sausage and cheese board, leaving behind only a few crumbs that Gerald occasionally reached out for and Ellie had to pinch up and give to him.
“Thank you, Gerald. That was a wonderful meal. I guess I was hungrier than I thought.” Ellie wondered to herself about the dinner that she had at home before storming out, unsure if she had even eaten that much in the first place.
“You’re most welcome, Miss Ellie. It really is good food, isn’t it?”
Ellie stood up from the table and pushed in her chair as Gerald hopped down and started for the door. She yawned as the two of them stepped into the street and grew curious as to what time it was, assuming it couldn’t be much later than ten o’clock.
“Ohh, I ate too much again,” Gerald groaned. “Miss Ellie, may I ride on your shoulder? I’ll direct you where to go.”
“Of course.” She knelt down to one knee and reached out her arm, but Gerald instead leapt up to her shoulder by himself. He let out another groan, this time a bit louder.
“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, standing upright. “So, where are we headed?”
“Southward,” he pointed from her shoulder.
Ellie made her way in the direction that Gerald instructed her to go. Parts of the town looked familiar as she realized that they were traveling down the same street that they had been when they first arrived that evening. More time must have passed than she realized, as the streets were certainly far less busy than they were before. During the time that they walked toward Haven’s edge, she saw only a handful of people either entering into buildings or wandering down the side streets.
A breeze picked up as Ellie stepped into the outskirts. She glanced toward the field and the forest in the distance before shifting her gaze down the road toward the castle. Ellie swallowed nervously and smoothed out the skirt of her dress.
“So, we’re really going to the castle, then?” she asked.
“Mm.” Gerald began fidgeting with his paws.
“It’s awfully frightening looking, don’t you think?”
“It’s not all that scary, Miss Ellie. Though it is home, so maybe I’m just used to it.”
“You live there?”
“I do. Well, technically I live under it.”
Ellie started down the road toward the castle. Her earlier estimation of it being about a mile away from the town seemed correct, but also gave her plenty of time for her thoughts to whir in her mind as she wondered what to expect.
“Is there anything that I should be prepared for with this whole... asylum verification thingy?”
A pained noise came from Gerald.
“You should 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 for a second.
“Let’s just hope it does go well. 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. Gerald said nothing in response.
Ellie soon found herself at the stairs by the castle’s front gate. She turned her head from one far end to the other in awe as the structure loomed over her, standing three rather tall stories high. A legion of windows lined the walls, some of which had lights shining through them but most of which were dark. On either side of the stairs were dirt paths that followed the front end of the castle before turning both corners and disappearing behind the walls leading south.
To her right was a stable with a large enclosure behind it and a carriage to the side. There were no horses harnessed to it, so she could only assume that they were resting inside the stable.
Ellie turned her attention to the stairs again, sighing at the sheer number of them.
“I think I’ve done quite enough walking for the day, but I suppose I can find it in me to make one last climb.” She started up the stairs to the front gate when she realized that Gerald hadn’t said anything in quite awhile. “Are you doing okay, Gerald?”
“No, Miss Ellie. But this is just how it is, I suppose.”
“All things considered, you’re much more worried than I am, and you live here. It can’t be that bad, can it?”
Gerald sighed, but did not reply.
They reached the top of the stairs and observed the grand door before them. Ellie raised a fist to start knocking, but doing so caused Gerald to call out in an almost desperate voice.
“There’s no need to knock. Just open the door.”
She stared at him briefly before reaching out for the handles. Ellie took them in her hands and pulled, but nothing happened. She tried again, this time with a force that shook her arms, but the door remained closed.
“Oh, goodness. I know I’m stronger than this. I have those gardener arms, after all.” Her attempt at lightening the mood only worked on herself.
“It must be locked,” Gerald said, hopping down from Ellie’s shoulder. He approached a part of the gate that she had not yet noticed, which appeared to be a much smaller door that was built inside the larger one. Gerald reached inside of his waistcoat, removing a tiny key and promptly inserting into the lock. Ellie tried not to giggle at the cute, tiny door.
“Just a moment, Miss Ellie.”
Gerald disappeared behind the rat-sized door. She waited as she heard the sound of shifting locks on the other side. One, two, then three locks were opened. A moment later, a fourth. Just when she thought it was over, a fifth one was unlocked. Ellie waited for the sound of a sixth lock to open, but instead heard Gerald’s voice call out from the other side.
“You should be able to open it now.”
Once more, Ellie grabbed the door handles and pulled. Only one door opened, but she created enough of a gap for her to step inside. Gerald was standing just on the other side of the gate in a spot that Ellie considered much too close to her feet. Worried that she might step on him, she shifted to the side but forgot to let go of the handle. This in turn caused her to pull the gate closed with an ounce too much force. She gasped when it slammed into place, the resounding slam echoing throughout the entire castle. Ellie and Gerald cringed at the sound and looked to one another, sighing simultaneously.
“Well, nothing like making an entrance, I suppose.”
“You’re going to be the death of me, Miss Ellie.”
Stepping further into the castle, Ellie was overwhelmed by the sight of the stunning entrance hall; dark, yet beautiful architecture that embraced her in greeting. Black pillars with intricate gold bases barred the edges of the room, drawing attention toward a gray and blue marble staircase directly ahead. It only went up so many steps before branching off to the east and west, connecting to the gold-railed balconies above.
The balconies connected behind the stairs and led to a wall decorated with windows. Ellie could see that one of the windows was actually a door that led outside, judging by the silhouette of a tree beyond that was painted in moonlight. Even further above her was a walkway that stretched from one end of the room to the other, but had seemingly no way to reach it from the hall.
Platforms replaced the newels of the stairs on the first floor. Atop them were bronze statues of men and women wrapped in cloth that held candelabras in their hands, the many lights flickering from them acting as the central point of light in the moody hall. As Ellie stepped forward, she noticed the long stretches of corridors on both sides of the hall, the darkness yawning the further they went.
Gerald muttered as he shuffled to the middle of the room. Ellie could barely make out what he was saying and carefully followed behind him, the heels of her shoes clacking on the gray marble floor as she did so. She tried to keep her eyes on him, but constantly found herself analyzing her surroundings on the first floor. It hadn’t occurred to her until that moment that the only sounds she could hear were from her and Gerald.
“Well, uh, I suppose I should go retrieve my lord,” he stuttered.
“That will be quite unnecessary, Gerald.”
The pair was startled by the voice that called out to them.
“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 come see who would be causing such a disturbance.”
Gerald squeaked as he scuttled next to Ellie. Her gaze was fixed at the top of the western stairwell where the voice had come from. Standing there beside a statue brandishing candelabras was a tall and pale elven man dressed in regal garb. His long, delicately wavy black hair was tucked behind his pointed ear on one side as he glared back at her with pallid red eyes.